The new challenge of robotics: take over the handwork manufacturing
The Robotic Industry is growing bigger day by day, launching on the market several advanced solutions which promise to revolutionise the way factories produce goods and assembly parts in a near future. As a result, also the expectations of Industry are constantly increasing and they look at robots as the definitive solution to save time (and, of course, money) and boost profits of their manufacturing companies.
The handwork manufacture is the new battlefield that robotics has begun to conquest in recent years, but despite this there is still a lot of room for improvement and expansion. In fact, while nowadays almost all the operators performing repetitive and simple tasks have been replaced with highly automated assembly lines, the same has not yet happened for handcraft. This is mainly due by the fact that manual labour requires such high skills and a human sensitivity that, at the moment, a robot cannot replace the operator in almost all the cases.
The automation of assembly lines based mainly on handwork are quite a challenge for the robotic industry due to the need of high skills and sensitivity
The solution that robotic producers have found to overcome this limit is the launch on the market of collaborative robots (also called cobots). Cobots aim to support handcrafts in the most repetitive, heaviest and uncomfortable tasks rather than completely replace them, allowing to preserve the high quality generated by manual labour and speeding up the productivity at the same time.
Unfortunately, the implementation of a robotic system into the production process is everything except easy and instantaneous and the benefits the robot could bring are not so obvious. In fact, the selection of proper components and a smooth integration are crucial to generate the positive impact on productivity, quality and operators’ working conditions which factory owners wish. And this is even more true for the implementation of collaborative robots into handwork manufacturing, where the system should reach high performance without neglecting the operator safety and the human acceptance.
Collaborative robots offer handcraft industries a support in repetitive and uncomfortable tasks for operators
Indeed, there is the need of an intermediary figure which could drive the end-user through the jungle of robotic products and serve as an interface between the salesman approach of suppliers and the concreteness of craftsmen undertaking in the workshop. This figure within Sharework project is commonly named as “Technology Coach”, and STAM is in charge of filling that role for one of the four use-cases, namely the assembly of rotary table in Goizper factory.
The technology coach: not only a matter of design
If the role of the Technology Coach is essential in the implementation of a robotic system into production lines, it could be even crucial when we talk about the introduction of cobots supporting handcrafts because of the aforementioned reasons. But exactly, who the Technology Coach is? And what it is supposed to do?
Generally speaking, it is a work team with well-mixed competences which belongs to a high-tech company or a R&D center. Unlike suppliers or system integrators, the Technology Coach not only proposes the design of a tailored robotic cell, but they follow a holistic approach which involves the end-user to reinvent and redesign the workflow and the workshop layout of tomorrow in a better way.
The Technology Coach should listen and understand the needs and the objectives of the end-user. Satisfying these wishes and achieving these goals will be its main mission. Once an agreement is found, Technology Coach should select suitable commercial solution, get in touch with suppliers, design the robotic system, reinvent the workflow and reshape the layout if needed, install and test the solution.They should take care of the whole process of implementation of the robot into the shop floor, from the definition of requirements to the commissioning and final test. This is an iterative and continuous process, some steps should be done several times until finding an equilibrium among the end-user expectations, the current robotic supply, the budget, the operator acceptance and well-being, the timing and so on.
Technology Coaches help industries in the implementation of new robotic systems, leading the whole innovation process matching he end-user’s demand in the most effective way
Most of the work of a Technology Coach can be done in its headquarters, using modern communication network to periodically update the end-user about the work progress. However, it is highly recommended to have a face-to-face with the end-user at the begin of the project, as well as to visit the shop floor and talk with operators working there to have a clear picture of the process.
The value added to the figure of the Technology Coach is to put at the stake all its set of cross-cutting competences and resources to satisfy the wishes of the end-user. Technical Coaching does not simply mean designing a robotic cell, but leading the whole innovation process of the manufacture, matching the robotic supply to the end-user’s demand in the most effective and smooth way.
The SHAREWORK example: a cobot for supporting the manual assembly of rotary table
As mentioned before, STAM embodies the role of Technology Coach in Sharework project to support Goizper and coordinate partners contributions in the implementation of a collaborative robot system in their servo rotary table assembly area. As the assembly of these components requires a remarkable human sensitivity and manual skill, the main aim of Goizper is to delegate to the Sharework system the most heavy and repetitive tasks of the assembly, while preserving worker focus on the most skilled operations.
As first step, we worked together to select the most suitable tasks to be delegated to the cobot and to define in details each scenario. In order to have a complete and clear picture of the workshop and the process, we carried out a technical visit to the factory together with the consortium. We had the chance to directly experience the working conditions (e.g. spaces, loads, noise), as well as to talk in first person with the workers to collect their feedback.
Once the use-case was pretty defined, STAM began to serve as an interface among the end-user and the external world. Our role was double: on one hand we translated the requests of Goizper into requirements and clear specification to effectively communicate with commercial suppliers and with the multiple software developers involved in Sharework, each one focused on different specific tasks. And, vice versa, we collected feedbacks, requests and suggestions from all the different entities involved in the Sharework project to provide a unified vision to Goizper and to propose them a feasible human-robot collaborative solution that could meet their expectations.
For these purposes, 3D models and views (see the following pictures), as well as all the other visual medias, are very useful to finally put on paper the developed concept and allow other partners to understand it in an easy and clear manner.
Figure 1: on the left, the Goizper operator tightens the bolts of the rotary table manually in the current scenario; on the right, the concept developed by STAM in Sharework project, which foresees a cobot screwing the bolts while the operator assist it
Figure 2: on the left, the Goizper operator rotates the input shaft and performs the visual inspection through a little mirror in the current scenario; on the right, the concept developed by STAM in Sharework project, which foresees a mechanical reducer rotating the shaft while the operator performs the visual inspection
It has been a long and iterative decisional process, but, in the end, we did it! We reached a final solution reinventing the rotary table assembly workflow to enhance the productivity, exalt the qualities of workers and safeguard their well-being.
However, our job is just starting out: we have to work hard in the next months to make this design on paper a concrete reality. Stay tuned!
Project Engineer at STAM S.r.l.
He has achieved the Master Degree in Safety Engineering for Transport, Logistic and Production at the University of Genoa, Italy. In 2018, he started to work as Project Engineer in STAM, an Italian engineering SME very active in the European Research and Development frame through the participation to several H2020 projects. Thanks to his cross-cutting competences and soft skills, Davide is currently involved in the undertaking of technical activities from different R&D projects, from the industry sector to security-related topics, as well as in the communication with other partners and in the creation of dissemination and exploitation contents. Furthermore, since 2020 he is also Project Manager of a wide EU R&D project concerning safety and security of automated systems.