Cheaper robots can help SMEs become more flexible

25 June 2012

Alistair Winning
Alistair Winning

What would tempt your company into buying a robot for use in your production line?

There is no doubt that robots are excellent for repetitive work, but do they cost too much or would you be reluctant to retrain someone to program them for every new job?

I had a fascinating demonstration in the office last week from Universal Robots, a young company that claimed to have taken most of the pain away with a light, safe, cheap and flexible robot that is ideal for SMEs. To prove their point a robot was brought to the office and set it up to complete a simple task in under 15 minutes. By the end of the demonstration I was given a chance to reprogram the robot myself.

The founders of Universal Robots were a team of students from Denmark, who looked at what would be required for robots to become more prevalent in SMEs. They came to the conclusion that as well as being cheaper, robots for SMEs would also have to be much more flexible, safer and easier to use.

Usually when robots are used in industrial applications, they are intended to fulfil the needs of high volume manufacturing. These robots are mainly intended to be used in stationary situations, usually either behind safety fencing or in a safe area. They are also generally programmed to do one job as programming is complicated and an engineer is often required to reprogram the robot for the next job.

A robot that would suit SME requirements would need the rulebook to be completely rewritten, so that is what the students did. Firstly, they looked at making the robot cheaper. The best method of achieving this was to lose the expensive sensors, and to control the robot by another method. The guys from Universal Robots wouldn’t give much away, but said that voltage and current feedback was used extensively.

A secondary benefit from using this feedback method is that both the control box and the robot were naturally much lighter, which almost by itself meant that they could easily be carried from one job to another fulfilling another requirement. The final weight of the control box is 25kg, with the arm being slightly lighter. Finally the feedback method made it easier to incorporate a safety feature that automatically cut out the robot if it encountered 15kg feedback. This allows the robot to work side by side with humans without a safety cage.

The other major hurdle to pass was simplifying the programming to allow the robot to be flexible enough to be used in multiple tasks over a short period of time. This was accomplished by adding a computer tablet with an easy to use graphical interface. The robot can also be trained by ‘dragging and dropping’ the arm through the required waypoints.

I was really impressed by the demonstration and how easy the robot is to use and I could see it being a real benefit to the many small manufacturers found in the UK. At a cost of €20,000 Universal Robots reckon it would take an average of six to eight months to pay for itself. It is worth having a look at the videos on the company’s website for an idea of how the robot works and to see some of the in which it is used:

Universal Robots are currently looking for UK distributors and resellers.

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