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Robots: Putting a case for their defence!

01 October 2017

Production and packing lines can stop working for any number of reasons, so why is the default assumption that a robotic malfunction is to blame? Paul Wilkinson offers some advice on getting to the real root of a problem. 

Too often robots are presumed to be the guilty party in the event of any production problem. We have seen this with the much-discussed ‘threat’ to jobs, despite evidence that it is actually in the interest of manufacturers to balance automation with the upskilling of manual workers. There is also a widespread assumption that, when lines stop working, the cause is hiding inside the ‘black box’ of automation rather than a mistake of the humans who manage it. 

Any statement to the effect that automation over the next decade and beyond will have no impact on employment should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. But, in its March 2017 report on robotics, Pricewaterhouse Coopers forecast that, although up to 46% of UK manufacturing jobs were ‘at potential high risk of automation by the early 2030s’, in many cases those jobs would evolve rather than disappear altogether. 

By 2030, it is also highly likely that the majority of robotic and automated production and packing lines will not only tell managers why a stoppage has occurred, but will probably be able to correct any problem themselves. 

Until then, however, when the robot stops working, it will probably still get the blame. Sometimes, when there is an element of complexity or variety in the operation, the assumption will be that the robot is simply not up to the job. Yet, if we are making robots a scapegoat, that probably means we are avoiding other actions which would take us much closer to the root cause of any malfunction. 

Five reasons why the buck should not stop with automated intelligence include:  

A robot is only as good as its programming: Robots and other automated sections of the line need to be programmed to recognise and handle every stock-keeping unit (SKU), including all variants at the primary and secondary packaging stage. This requires the same amount of time and effort to be invested in understanding the full scope of a project as in the selection and specification of equipment. 

In product handling and case loading, problems can occur because an integrator has not fully considered the movement of the robotic arm from pick point to place point, the timings on the line, and so on.

Preparations should include talking to all of those involved -  from operator level up to directors - to ensure that all current and future expectations are understood in detail and can be met in full. The appropriate programming must be available and, just as importantly, easily and reliably accessible. 

There are other essential elements within the preparation stage. Experienced line operators will be able to predict many of the challenges arising from the nature of the product being handled, different fill levels, poor-quality sealing, spillages and other variables. All of these issues can affect the smooth running of the line, and need to be uncovered and factored into automation planning. 

The workforce needs to be on-side: The workforce can do much more than advise on potential problems. They may initially be wary about the impact of automation, but can be turned into champions of the same technology. Some Or all workers may be reassigned to other duties in the factory – perhaps being responsible for longer sections of the line, or being trained up to more skilled or technical roles. This happens for the best operational reasons, but can mean that managers are effectively doing away with a critically important layer of visual monitoring and inspection. 

All operators, and not just those directly responsible for sections of the line, should remain vigilant for any upstream problems which might interfere with its smooth running. Here, managers can play a key role in encouraging those involved to think through to root causes, rather than being satisfied with short-term troubleshooting. 

Where operators are responsible for setting up the line for changeovers, they need to be given clear training and instructions to ensure all necessary manual and electronic changes are made. If cross-settings, such as guides set to the wrong width, are not corrected, this can jam the line, triggering a shutdown and potentially resulting in lengthy downtime while the problem is fixed. 

Consideration also needs to be given to the ‘human factor’. This is not, strictly speaking, human error. Though thankfully rare, there have been cases of workers disabling robots in order to bring significant numbers of manual operators onto the line, complete packing requirements more quickly and, as a result, leave work earlier. 

Instead, experienced operators need to be persuaded that the business still relies on them to support and monitor its automated lines. By doing so, they can hopefully be motivated to perform those roles responsibly alongside the new equipment. 

Even the best teams need sound ongoing technical support: However well trained the workforce may be, it can make a big difference to partner with an integrator that is able to offer strong, ongoing technical support. This is especially true in the area of automation and robotics. 

The robots may have been programmed to answer every production need at the time of installation, but needs change. Customers come up with new requirements, and production lines need to respond. High-quality technical support allows different solutions to be more quickly assessed and employed.

Wisely, most companies installing automation would see this level of support as a prerequisite. However, it is surprising how often we find that a technology has been mothballed, where it could easily have been reprogrammed to fit into a new or modified role. 

A good supplier should also help to make in-house reprogramming easier. Pacepacker, for example, can offer Pallet+ software, which facilitates programming for both palletising and case loading robots, without the need for either engineer visits or the use of a robot teach pendant. 

Good housekeeping: Unless systems offer sophisticated self-diagnostics, customers should keep an eye on housekeeping and maintenance needs, too. This may simply be a matter of routinely ensuring the line is clean, that there is no accumulation of product residues or dust. These can block vital sensors or jam a belt, for example, triggering an overload. 

Likewise, line managers need to be aware of wear and tear on key parts of the line and the impact this can have on smooth, uninterrupted operation. Regular checks during scheduled downtime can help to prevent serious failures during production periods. 

Love your end effectors: If a robot is only as good as its programming, it is similarly only as good as its end effectors. Where a single robot is performing multiple actions and handling a range of pack types and sizes, changeovers may involve substituting one of a number of different end effectors. It is essential that processes and training are designed to ensure that the correct tool is always in place. 

In conclusion, a robotic malfunction is likely to be just part of a bigger story and in most instances the robot cannot be blamed for a production blip. Indeed, well programmed and well-maintained robots will enable operators to be more productive and pursue more satisfying and professionally challenging career paths.  

Paul Wilkinson is commercial & information systems manager at Pacepacker Services.

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