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Adopt a robot - it may save your company.

The industrial robot was invented in the US about 25 years ago. Since then, worldwide confusion developed over how to define it. The problem involved the term being used to refer to automated equipment that didn't possess the special abilities of robots. The Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Dearborn, MI, solved the problem by creating the following definition now recognized by most nations:

Industrial robot--a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.

Currently, RIA estimates that 13,000 industrial robots are installed in the US. About 35 percent of the installations are in the auto industry. Other major industries using robots include home appliances, aerospace, consumer goods, electronics, and off-road vehicles. Developments covered in our Advanced Manufacturing Technology section, such as machine vision and tactile sensing, make robots much more suitable for a wider range of industries. The near future will find robots used increasingly in textiles, food processing, pharmaceuticals, furniture, construction, and even health care.

Robots, when properly implemented, can increase manufacturing productivity, particularly when integrated into an automated system. The history of US robot installations indicates that the contraptions increase productivity by 20 to 30 percent.

Since the majority of robots are applied to existing machinery, user companies can accelerate payback on current equipment while reducing the need for new capital investment. For example, it may be more cost effective to buy robots to make existing stamping presses or machine tools 20 to 30 percent more productive than to buy additional machinery at a cost equal to or greater than the robots with less output. It's worth checking out.

RIA believes that the importance of improved productivity can't be stressed enough. The future strength of the nation depends on American companies becoming more productive and staying competitive in world markets. Other nations recognize the need to automate and are moving full speed with government, industry and labor support. They also recognize the importance of applying advanced manufacturing technologies to achieve goals.

Japan plays hard ball

Despite the fact that the technology was invented in America, the Japanese are the leaders at using robots. In the mid '60s, Japanese industries and government agencies recognized the vast productivity potential and, circa 1975, Japan's Ministry of International Trade (MITI) targeted robotics as an industry to dominate.

Incentive programs, including government sponsored R&D tax benefits to manufacturers and users, as well as depreciation allowances for robot users, were created to aid national robot leasing programs. More recently, direct funding of robotic sensor development reflects Japan's continuing commitment. These programs are extremely helpful to the approximately 200 Japanese robot manufacturers and to the Japanese economy.

Robot use is likely to top the 90,000 level in America by 1990. Industry experts believe that many new job opportunities will be created by the automation industries, similar to the explosion of opportunities created by widespread use of computers. Most agree that robots won't have a significant impact on employment levels in the near future.

For the long term, however, accelerating use of robots may aggrevate unemployment problems if our work force isn't prepared with required job skills. America must plan for the future by instituting job retraining programs, new courses of study, and by developing a positive attitude about automation.

But look before leaping

Bernard N Slade, an Arthur D Little Inc (Cambridge, MA), product development and production expert (and former director of manufacturing technology at IBM), warns companies seeking a robot cure for their productivity woes better have solved basic problems such as "chronic bottlenecks" within their existing factory operations first. Slade likens some attempts to automate to "assembling a symphony orchestra with all virtuosos." Trouble inevitably arises, he says, when resources--people, tools and materials--are considered independently of one another.

He maintains that to improve productivity, companies must find ways to increase factory output with a minimum increase in resources. Moreover, he says, they must substantially decrease the time taken to get a product from development to market.

According to him, "The surest way for a company to reach both goals is to flush our bottlenecks in existing operations, build contingencies into new plant designs, and do a better job or proving that a product can be mass produced.

"Robotics should be used not simply to reduce labor content, but to control processes, reduce contamination and eliminate operator error." He takes issue with manufacturers arguing that automation's main benefit is labor force reduction, pointing out that labor is only a small part of the manufacturing cost of most US products.

Slade also urges companies to include sufficient contingencies when planning manufacturing operations, "To avoid facing the same predicament as the young couple who builds a three-bedroom home and ends up having eight children."

"The real issue isn't whether to automate, but how and to what extent," adds Chester A Sadlow, Westinghouse Electric Corp's executive VP of Advanced Production Technology. He cites several key issues in the decision to automate: How to redesign products to ensure compatibility with flexible manufacturing systems; how to speed up quality and quantity of informatioin and material flow in plants to keep pace with shorter manufacturing cycles; and social issues of the impact of automation on humans.

"Ironically," says Sadlow, "none of these are technology issues. They are management issues. The biggest obstacle to robots isn't organized labor, but unorganized management." He identified the basic concepts of the innovative and successful management of automation as boiling down to planning and understanding the benefits.

"If you plan for automation such as robotics, and decide not to implement the technology--our rule of thumb says you will still end up with a productivity and cost improvement of about 25 percent." He repeatedly stresses the importance and value of the "planning process," which should precede installation of equipment.

More than two thirds of automation efforts are expended in areas other than automation equipment. Such efforts dictate equipment and application decisions, the last step in the process.

"Planning forces designers to design for automated manufacturing and manufacturing engineers to design for flexibility, moving ever closer to lot sizes of one. It forces developing fewer and closer relationships with suppliers, moving the inspection function out of your factory and into theirs."

The Westinghouse executive poses a question likely to be in the mind of anyone considering factory automation: What is the cost justification? The bad news is that traditional accounting methods make it difficult to document savings. Reduced quality failure costs, accelerated manufacturing cycles, and improved customer satisfaction--all documented benefits of robotics--don't have a neatly assigned column in the ledger book.

"In fact," Sadlow points out, "one of the lessons we learned is that perhaps the least measurable of these benefits is the most important--and that's quality. Fortunately, US manufacturers are beginning to understand that quality and productivity go hand-in-hand. In fact, if you concentrate on quality--and do things right the first time--your productivity and costs automatically improve dramatically."

The real answer to the question of cost justifying, suggest Sadlow, comes from Japan and Europe. They don't try to justify it. "As radical as that seems to Americans," he says, "it's correct. The Japanese and progressive European manufacturers accept the quality gospel on faith, without benefit of their accountants, and are designing and manufacturing products that make only one trip down increasingly robotized assembly lines."
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:May 1, 1985
Previous Article:Flexible manufacturing demands flexible inspection.
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