Robots, their Maintenance, and where did the jobs go?
The use of Robotics in manufacturing processes is increasing all over the world, in the construction of motorcars and their sub-assemblies to production lines of all sizes picking and placing component parts in many differing industries. The goals, however, are the same for all, to increase profit, save money, increase manufacturing throughput, quality and efficiency.
Where jobs take place in hazardous environments, such as paint spraying and factories that feature lots of press equipment, or, more recently in the decommissioning of nuclear power stations, this can only be beneficial from a health perspective. Litigation must be a driving factor as well for the employer, with jobs that are dangerous and stressful, if they can find an automated alternative that doesn’t suffer stress, fatigue and other ailments for which they may be liable it is an obvious choice.
Typical applications for robotic automation
Jobs requiring high levels of concentration
It’s no stretch of the imagination to realise that the human element of the production environment is one area where continual employment is waning, with many companies replacing people with a robotic counterpart who can operate 24hrs a day 365 days a year. From a costing and legal perspective you can understand why this would happen, for the people who depend on such jobs, then things seem to be not too optimistic. In China, for example, the once bountifully cheap place to install a manufacturing base has seen a huge rise in the wages of its employable workforce, more than double in the past 8 years. To address this, companies are striving to replace their employees with a robotic counterpart, Cambridge Industries Group in China, has stated it wants to replace 3000 of its current workforce with machines within a year, and within a few more years its plan is to be almost entirely automated, creating a so-called ‘Dark factory’
Where will humanity fit in?
It does make one wonder where humanity will fit into this increasingly robot orientated production world, where will the people work? There will be a requirement for people to design the machinery and the process flow, configure the software and the testing parameters and unless the robotic industry relies on entirely robotically manufactured components and they are built by and serviced robots, then there is a place for humanity somewhere in the loop for the construction of components, assemblies, delivery, installation, and the servicing of these machines.
One job that springs to mind is that of the maintenance engineer, for however durable a robotic production process may be, there will certainly be a need for the many maintenance processes to be dealt with to keep the production process running smoothly. There are a multitude of methodologies that can be utilised for maintenance purposes, some very good, and some, not so good, below is a list of a few of the methods utilised as maintenance schedules that the maintenance engineer may employ.
This is barely a process at all, this is where production machinery is run until it fails. Eventually something will give and so reactive maintenance is performed, common in areas where failure of production equipment doesn’t significantly affect productivity. This is less likely to be found in a robotic production environment where the initial idea is to improve throughput and productivity.
- No planning
- Simple process
- Fewer people
- Highly unpredictable
- A safety risk to employees
- Impractical in a robotised production process
As the name implies, preventative maintenance exists to help prevent those productions lines from breaking down in the first place, featuring two different types of maintenance subsets, periodic maintenance and predictive maintenance.
- Keeps Robotic processes running for longer
- Long-term repair costs are lower
- Safety is improved
- Can be complex
- Requires more investment
Robotic production machinery is periodically inspected, serviced and cleaned and parts are replaced within a specific time frame to prevent failure. This method allows those responsible for maintenance and servicing to reduce the likelihood of failure although it cannot guarantee breakdowns won’t happen in between maintenance periods.
- Usually simple tasks such as lubrication
- Lower long-term costs compared with breakdown maintenance
- Extensive planning
- Parts are replaced before end of life, which can incur cost
- Parts can fail prior to the next inspection
In this method of robotic maintenance, engineers predict when equipment failure may happen and perform maintenance to keep the production process running. This method ensures that a robotic production line is only shut down before imminent failure, allowing the manufacturing process to run for as long as possible. Predictive maintenance uses a process known as condition monitoring to check the operation status of production line robotics on a regular basis.
- Cost and machine downtime is kept to a minimum
- Likelihood of failure is reduced and reliability improved
- Higher initial cost than more basic maintenance strategies.
Condition monitoring is the methodology of determining the condition of a production line system while it is still in operation, through various techniques, like vibration monitoring. Monitoring the condition of robotic production machinery is essential as it reduces the failure and downtime of critical machinery allowing remedial action to be taken and productivity to be protected.
- Problem components can be identified before failure
- Repairs can be carried and keep the process line running with minimal disruption to productivity
- Long-term costs are low compared with the cost of failure
- Short-term investment is required.
There are a few methodologies to choose from as you can see, and the list above is certainly not inclusive, and your choice will depend on your specific processing requirements, perhaps a combination would be suitable, or simply a breakdown response is all you require?
Whatever methods you utilise, the human touch is prevalent in all the sub-industries and processes that support the robotics industry, from the tools you use, the parts the robots require, to the clothes on your back. It appears that mankind will be involved somewhere in the background helping to build and service the robotic workforce and one hopes we are not forgotten in the drive for increased automation in the coming years.