Rethink Robotics is leading the way in advanced robotic technology with collaborative robots; changing the way robots are used in research and industry. The Baxter Research Robot is a fully functional humanoid robot platform including sensor suite for research and teaching applications.
Collaborative robots, or cobots, are providing manufacturers of all sizes with the capability to automate more than ever before. We know that getting up and running with a cobot quickly is a priority, to see results as soon as possible.
We’ve spent a lot of time in our customers’ factories, and many of our team members came from the manufacturing world themselves. Based on our experience, here are our top five tips to getting started with cobots to ensure a quick deployment and increase in productivity and quality.
1. Identify and prioritize the right tasks: Cobots present manufacturers with automation opportunities for a variety of applications. Jobs that are mundane, repetitive, ergonomically challenging or high risk are typically ripe for cobot deployment. Tasks such as packaging, metal stamping, testing and quality inspection, and CNC machine tending, are all areas where a cobot can streamline operations and free humans to work on higher value functions. Identifying these specific tasks and tackling them out of the gate will help ensure a smooth cobot deployment and drive results faster.
2. Educate and reassure your workforce: Employees might be initially skeptical about robots joining the team. Traditional manufacturing robots have worked apart from humans behind safety caging, but cobots are designed to be collaborative and they’re safe to work alongside humans. Sawyer, for example, has high resolution force control on all of the arm joints, so it stops moving when it comes into contact with an object. Workers may also worry about their job security – are these robots here to put me out of work? It’s important to communicate with employees that cobots won’t – and shouldn’t – replace human workers. Rather, they are designed to handle the more monotonous, error-prone processes, allowing workers to handle the tasks that require more cognition, dexterity and reason. The more workers know about their cobot teammates, the more likely companies are to maximize the benefits of this form of industrial automation.
3. Think 24/7/365: Cobots don’t need to sleep, or take lunch breaks or vacations. Productivity in the context of a cobot is different from a standard workforce, so it’s important to rethink planning and production schedules. Cobots can perform overnight and lights out to add a third shift and have parts completed when workers arrive back at the facility. Or they can fill positions in workcells that are hard to keep staffed so the production line does not have to stop and customer orders can be filled on time.
4. Work with your cobot manufacturer/distributor: Your cobot manufacturer and distributor know the best practices for cobots – what tasks are ideal, which grippers are most suited to the application, and how to deploy for a specific environment. To speed deployment and start seeing positive impacts sooner, draw on the expertise of these partners from the beginning, utilize the training tools and courses they offer, and use them as valuable resource in getting your cobot running effectively, faster.
5. Learn from your peers and your employees: Collaborative robots are extremely versatile and adaptable. They’ve already been put to work in plastics, contract packaging, metal fabrication, logistics, and electronics manufacturing, just to name a few. Your industry may have unique challenges – explore how others like you have implemented cobots. Cobots are also meant to work alongside people, and this proximity will inspire your employees to find new ways to work with cobots, different processes for improving production results, and new opportunities for cobot deployments.
Carl works in our Product Management team. When he’s not busy engaging with customers and working with multiple departments on different projects, he’s always hitting the streets and taking his training runs very seriously. Carl’s enthusiasm and focus on his training very much interconnects with how he works on projects here at Rethink Robotics.
As a Director of Software Product Management here at Rethink, how would you describe your role?
My role is primarily a business function where I have to make sure that whatever we’re building is solving a customer problem, that it is solving it in a way that they desire for it to be solved, and that they’re willing to pay for that solution. I interact with customers a lot.
I also interact with engineering to make sure that it’s a problem that we can solve and that we have the technology to solve it. I work with UX (our user experience team) to make sure that it is a pleasure to use our product, and I work with finance to make sure that whatever we’re charging for the product is the right price. It’s a very multidisciplinary role. What’s fun about it is that I get to work with pretty much everyone in the company and I get to make products that people really enjoy using.
You’ve had extensive experience in various aspects of manufacturing across many industries. Just to name a few, you’ve been a manufacturing engineer, a product manager, and even owned your own manufacturing and consulting business (Palme Precision Machining). Do you feel like these experiences help you relate to manufacturing customers and their challenges, and if so, how?
I owned a small company where we had a lot of high-mix, low-volume type of operations where the only way to stay competitive was to try to automate as much as possible. At the time when I had my own company you could only find industrial robots and they really did not cater to our needs because they were too difficult to program, you had to have them in a fixed location and they didn’t deal well with variability. Industrial machines are so expensive and because we wanted them to run even when people were not at work, we invested a lot in automation. We hired a lot of engineers and essentially that is what inspired me to work for Rethink because one of the things that would’ve helped me tremendously was having a tool like Sawyer.
Having worked in manufacturing, I can relate to our customers and understand their problems. I think that when you talk to these customers and you don’t have the credibility then it’s more difficult to extract actionable information from them. One of the things that I love about my job is that you get to meet a lot of customers and you get to hear a lot of the problems that they want to solve. You also get to see how so many things are made, and I love that!
What was one of the most difficult problems you had to solve from a customer?
One of the most difficult things that I had happen at Rethink was very early on when we first deployed Baxter at a customer site. We had a theory for how the robot should work and then when we went to test it with customers it was not meeting their expectations. It wasn’t doing the job, it was too slow, it was very limited in its functionality. So, when I started at the company I worked a lot with support doing the first deployments. It was difficult because you’re proud of the product you’re building and you go out to the field and then people don’t like it. On the other hand, you’re meeting people who are willing to work with you to try to make it better. So, by working with them, doing the first deployments, it gave us a lot of insight into what it was that we had to focus on fixing. Essentially everything we learned from those initial deployments is what led to Intera 5 and Sawyer. So, in a way, struggling through the first product that we made enabled us to create the world transforming products we make today.
What do you think are benefits of having a cobot in a manufacturing environment?
When a cobot is used correctly, it provides you tremendous flexibility because you can have the robot do the repetitive, mundane tasks that are very boring for operators but yet are critical to the operation. So you can retain your employees for a lot longer because you’re giving them value added tasks and not the boring type of tasks. Also, at the same time, you’re getting a lot more consistency in the product that you’re building. You can also automate very quickly – as fast as one day. It gives you a lot of flexibility, as well as an ability to quote for bigger jobs, and it can also lead to better employee retention.
You’ve been a product manager for most of your career. What is one of the most important things to keep in mind when bringing a product to life?
There’s a philosophy in Product Management that I like to call NIHITO and it stands for “nothing important happens in the office.” That’s super important because, again going back to the Baxter and Intera example, we would not have learned about what was important to our customers had we stayed in the office. You really have to go visit your customers, you have to visit as many customers as you can, you have to be in their environment, and just be in constant customer contact. It’s difficult because sometimes you’ll meet customers who will love your product, but you know that you can’t just design for them. You have to find the people who will hate your product in order to improve upon it. But overall, in order to make a really good product, you always have to be in the field. Nothing beats meeting a customer face to face.
Any other gems to add?
I always ask, “what is the problem we’re trying to solve?” because I think people, especially in very innovative companies, can lose focus pretty quickly. And without understanding the problem that you’re trying to solve very well, it’s very easy to get distracted. So, I think at a small, fast-paced, innovative company, understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, and always asking that question helps focus people on working towards a right solution.
We have another runner in the house! It seems like the kitchen talk has been a lot about your training lately. What are some races on your docket for the summer and which one are you anxious or excited for most?
In September, I’ll be doing the Portland Maine Marathon. I’ve never finished a marathon before (I tried once and got injured during the race.) Training right now for the Portland Marathon is difficult because it’s hot and humid. It’s just horrible. But this whole running thing started from the Ragnar Relay Series which is a 200ish mile team relay. It’s a fun race that I encourage everyone to try (I’ve done it three years in a row). The reason I like Ragnar is because it’s really a test of your endurance. It also is a test of the friends you keep because you’re stuck in a van, you’re not sleeping, you run then get in a van, you go to the next spot then somebody else runs and then you go to the van and so on and so forth. So there’s a lot of planning involved. It’s also a spiritual experience. You’re running out in the middle of nowhere in the dark exhausted and it’s like “alright, I’m doing this and I’m not dead. This is good stuff”.
For more Meet the Maker interviews and other blog posts, catch up with us here. And check in with us anytime on Twitter for a daily dose of robotics and manufacturing automation chatter.
Everything we purchase these days involves packaging, and can include a box, plastic or glass bottle or jar, plastic tray or bag, foam inserts, and other items. As I write this, our local markets all have end cap displays featuring summer cookout items, from bags of marshmallow roasting sticks to boxes of graham crackers.
How items are packaged is changing as companies demand that manufacturers provide packaging that’s unique to their business and product type — e.g. a big brand retailer versus a local “Main Street” shop.
Customized packaging is especially prevalent in the food and grocery business, with the global food packaging market having reached $273.9 billion in 2017. Driving the industry are factors such as changes in lifestyle, increasing urbanization, smaller households, and increasing food variety.
Seasonality can also play a role. A co-packer may experience peak activity before major holidays – where candies, nuts or other items are arranged in special sets or trays.
Two types of consumers are driving how food is packaged: those who buy online and those who still shop brick and mortar. Online grocers account for $12 billion of the $627 billion US grocery market – and 27% of US adults say they’ve purchased food online (source: AdWeek).
Within brick and mortar stores, how items are displayed is changing how they’re packaged. Retailers are using horizontal and vertical spaces to drive impulse or bulk purchases and end cap displays to promote specialty or seasonal sales items. (Source: Packaging Digest)
These changes, whether for the grocery shelf or the e-commerce website, as well as how they’re shipped (e.g. traditional pallet or USPS) are impacting co-packers and packaging companies.
Next, watch how manufacturers of all sizes are increasing productivity and solving packaging challenges with collaborative robots in our video gallery. Then learn how they’re automating more applications on the factory floor with cobots, and where similar opportunities may exist on your production line.
If you’ve ever worked in software like me, you know that version numbers have great importance. It’s rare to see a “release 1.0,” because customers have been conditioned to believe that the higher the version number, the better, more robust and easier to use the application will be, so they’ll wait for 2.0 or 3.0, etc. When upgrades come, customers expect to find something really revolutionary about what the product does or how they can use it.
So what does that mean when we anticipate Industry 5.0? To me, this one is really exciting. Why? Because unlike previous “versions,” this one is not about technology or process – it’s about customers. Industry 5.0 promises to bring all the technological innovation brought by Industry 4.0 (and all the previous iterations) to bear on what truly drives competitive advantage and world-class performance: giving the customer what they want, when and how they want it. It’s an idea that’s been around for decades; in the 90s it was “build-to-order,” more recently it’s been labeled “mass customization,” and now we’re calling it personalization. Call it whatever you like, it’s been a long slow road to get here, but digitization and innovation in automation are finally tearing down the obstacles to flexible, nimble and responsive production environments.
One truly revolutionary aspect of Industry 5.0 is how work will get done. For the first time since machines were introduced to do physical labor, they – in the form of collaborative robots (cobots) – can automate more. As a result, people can do the kind of work they are best at doing – problem-solving, data interpretation for faster and smarter decisions and strategies for process improvement and product innovation.
We’ve waited a really, really, really long time to get here (200+ years). Of course, reinventing or reimagining manufacturing is not easy. After all, we’re talking about large operations, with huge machines and processes that have been refined and honed over decades to optimize efficiency, productivity and costs. Transformation requires disruption, and for most manufacturers the very idea of disruption – an event which causes the production of goods to be slowed or maybe stopped – is enough reason to dig in their heels and resist.
That’s not what’s going to happen here. In fact, in Industry 5.0, cobots give manufacturers what they need to meet today’s challenges like labor shortages while laying a path toward the demand-driven models we’ve all been waiting for, including the ability to:
Automate more: With cobots able to move toward automating more tasks that require technical skills, like machine tending, manufacturers get 1) the assurance that operations can run efficiently, smoothly and reliably and 2) the runway to offer more training focused on those adaptive skills required for the new models.
Scale up and down as business needs: Moving from one to two shifts or three shifts to one with people as the primary labor force is not easy – nor desirable. Cobots can work as much – or as little – as needed, and at around $35,000, ROI can still be achieved if the cobot is only in use for a single shift.
Maintain dependable levels of quality and productivity: For many tasks, repetition is the name of the game. And doing the same thing over and over is not easy for people: Minds wander, fingers and hands become numb and mistakes get made – or worse, someone gets hurt. Cobots are well-suited to these tasks and can perform the same one over and over with a guaranteed level of precision and reliability.
Here we are at the dawn of Industry 5.0. Manufacturers recognize that success will come to those who are more responsive to market changes, able to deliver on customer preferences and cultivate faster innovation. Factories will be smaller, and located more closely to markets and design centers, accelerating new product introduction and strengthening competitive advantage. Production lots of smaller sizes and personalization become economically viable, increasing customer loyalty and reducing risk.
Smart cobots and people will work in harmony – each contributing to the best of their inherent abilities.
The result? In Industry 5.0, manufacturers find new ways to ignite creativity and new fuel for innovation, and customers find it easier and easier to define the products they buy. That is, indeed, a transformation to be excited about.
Next, explore the rest of the Rethink Robotics blog, including more news and views from Jim and our other authors, and be sure to subscribe above for blog alerts delivered directly to your inbox.
There’s a lot of news lately about the growing labor shortage and the trend toward fewer people looking to work in manufacturing. We know that the global workforce is aging out – retiring with decades of institutional knowledge. More distressing for the future of the sector is the very real perception problem around what manufacturing work really is today, and why anyone looking for a job that’s challenging and financially rewarding should look at manufacturing.
The simple fact is that manufacturing jobs have changed enormously, and working in production environments requires more brains than brawn, as machines increasingly do the majority of the heavy lifting. Take CNC machining, for example: The training manual for a typical process is more than 200 pages long, and it can take up to two years for a person to be trained on that machine. Sadly, though, while salaries for these jobs can be worthwhile, the skills gap is real, and filling those positions is getting harder every day.
I think it’s clear that manufacturers need to do a better job of selling the opportunities for people to work in manufacturing. So here’s a crazy idea: What if one of the opportunities that got a spotlight was working with collaborative robots?
Yes, you read that right. Instead of focusing on the jobs that will be eliminated by collaborative robots that can automate so many more tasks, the narrative was built around the opportunity to work with smart machines on transformative strategies that build high-performing, efficient and highly competitive operations. A new portfolio of skills, like creativity, complex problem-solving and critical thinking, are the ones that the next generation of workers want to bring to the workplace – and the ones that will be essential in the digital age of manufacturing. Working with big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and more are just some of the opportunities that robots make possible in manufacturing – and are hot fields.
Making it cool to work in manufacturing is not really that crazy – or hard. We’ve got customers who share with us that their employees love working with our robots and take great pride in telling their friends and family about that work. And because robots are changing the definition of work, there’s no better time to rebrand what it means to work in manufacturing and use robots as a lever to attract the best and the brightest talent.
For more news, videos and views about manufacturing, automation and the workforce of the future, drop by Cobot Central. Also, check out the rest of the Rethink Robotics blog and be sure to subscribe above to receive alerts sent directly to your inbox.