This type of equipment is typically large, expensive, and complex. It requires fixed, self-contained work cells that are separated from workers by safety fencing that costs more than the robot itself and often requires production floor layouts to be reconfigured. Once the robot is installed, complex programming and integration require additional technical resources that most SMEs don’t have in-house and can’t afford to re-engage every time a product line changes or a new process needs to be automated. In fact, the capital costs for traditional robots account for only 25 to 30 percent of the total system costs. The remaining costs are associated with robot programming, setup, and dedicated, shielded work cells.
But a relatively new class of robots—dubbed “collaborative robots” (or “cobots”) due to their ability to work alongside employees—are poised to bridge the gap between fully manual assembly and fully automated manufacturing lines. Nowhere is that more needed than in the SME sector.
Nichrominox is a case in point. For forty years, the company has manufactured a variety of accessories for dental practices, including sterilization boxes and trays for several types of burs (used to cut teeth or bone), endodontic and hand instruments, and a range of retractors. With 37 employees in its 3,500-square meter facility, Nichrominox exports 75 percent of its products. The family-owned enterprise is one of the last French manufacturers in the dental industry.
To take on competition from countries with low labor costs, Eric Lefrancq-lumiere—managing director and son of the company’s founder—wanted to automate repetitive processes to improve productivity. Nichrominox began a robotic, metal-folding project using traditional industrial robots, but soon realized they didn’t have the necessary in-house resources. The robots were too complex for internal employees to program and overall project costs were simply too high to justify the returns.
Not willing to give up on automation, however, the company researched collaborative robots, which can be as little as one-fifth the cost of traditional robots. Cobots are also much smaller and lighter weight, so they can fit into existing production layouts and can be easily moved from one process to another. And their built-in safety systems allow humans and robots to work side-by-side in the vast majority of applications worldwide. This is often a critical aspect of successful automation for SMEs who have product lines that are low-volume, high-mix, or require detailed human interaction alongside more repetitive processes. This flexibility allows cobots to be easily redeployed to new processes or product lines—some SMEs have even mounted the robots on wheeled stands so they can be rolled from one production line to another.
One of the most important characteristics of cobots is their ease of use, which allowed the company to program manufacturing operations in-house, using existing employees even though they had no previous programming experience. In fact, setup for collaborative robots typically takes less than an hour to unpack the robot, mount it, and program the first simple task. Nichrominox programmer Cédric Lefrancq-lumiere said, “I did not have any programming knowledge, but after only two days of training, I was able to understand and program the robot. Today, I only need one or two hours to program a new task and I’m constantly improving the program to achieve better quality and precision.”
Instead of requiring skilled programmers, this new class of robots comes with a tablet-sized touchscreen user interface, where the user can easily guide the robot arm by indicating movements on the screen. Collaborative robots can also be “taught” by simply moving the robot arm through the desired path of movement and using the touchscreen interface to establish the program. The interface is compliant with most industrial sensors and programmable logic controls for more sophisticated operations such as CNC machine integration. Further, programs can be saved for reuse, so if the robot is redeployed for multiple processes, the operator simply needs to pull up the correct program on the touchscreen and move the robot into place and it’s ready to get to work.
While Nichrominox originally planned to automate a single metal-folding application, the owners quickly discovered the advantages of collaborative robots. In just one year, the company expanded from its first collaborative robot to four robots running several different processes. In one application, a pick-and-place robot performs a punching operation on one press, then turns components on a shuttle table, and performs a bending operation on a second press (Figure 1).
In the second operation, the robot is fully integrated with a CNC machining center, which reduces the risk of repetitive strain injuries for human workers (Figure 2).
The third application is highly collaborative, with the robot and human worker side-by-side in an assembly station where the robot delivers pieces to the operator to assemble (Figure 3). The robot is equipped with a force sensor, so the operator simply needs to touch the robot to signal it to remove the assembled piece and deliver the next component. Cobots are built with rounded joints, back-drivable motors, force sensors, and lighter weight materials, all designed to make them safe around human workers. If the robot comes into contact with an employee, the forces at contact adhere to current safety requirements on force and torque limitations so it doesn’t cause bodily harm. Once a risk assessment is performed, this safety feature allows the robot to operate with no safety guards in most applications.
The final process uses the robot to laser-mark products with brand names and product codes.
While some employees were initially concerned the robots would replace them, they quickly came to appreciate this new type of automation. Operator Lucas lafrate explained, “When the robot came in, I was a bit scared because I thought it would replace my job, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I was operating the robot, and thanks to its help, I have improved productivity and know exactly the number of pieces we produce together. Before, I was constantly working in front of the machine. Now I can let the robot work on its own.”
In fact, Eric Lefrancq-lumiere stated the robots immediately increased productivity by 10 percent, with more consistent production flow and higher production quality. He was also pleased to have improved working conditions for employees, with a decrease in injuries caused by repetitive manual tasks and the ability for workers to take on higher-value activities.
With an average return on investment of just 14 months, Eric Lefrancq-lumiere intends to continue automating Nichrominox processes, transforming its production lines with additional collaborative robots—proving that even a small family-owned business can reap the benefits of automation.
Get a better visual of the benefits the cobots provided to Nichrominox in this video.
Esben Østergaard is chief technology officer at Universal Robots and is responsible for the enhancement of existing UR cobots and the development of new products. He holds a Ph.D. in Robotics and is one of the inventors behind the UR cobots. During his years as researcher and assistant professor in robotics and user interfaces at University of Southern Denmark (2001-2005), he created the foundation for a reinvention of the industrial robot. In 2005, this led him to found Universal Robots together with two of his research colleagues. Besides his work as CTO, Østergaard is participating in national research projects and he is also an external examiner at several universities in Denmark. Earlier in his career, he worked as a research scientist at USC Robotics Labs in Southern California and also at AIST in Tokyo as a visiting researcher. During his studies in computer science, physics, and multimedia at Aarhus University in Denmark, he focused exclusively on robotics and became world champion in his hobby, robot football, in 1998.