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Hot issues in automated assembly: will it ever work?

Our assembly processes are strongly influenced by our leader's perception of what is being doen elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, these government and industry leaders know more about economic and political issues that they do about technical problems, and this affects their perception and management thrust. America has the dubious distinction of being the only major industrial country where the vast majority of industrial leaders have little if any technological training. Because of this, we must now face some unpleasant questions about factory and assembly automation.

Has all the money, expertise, and widespread publicity in the trade, financial, and popular press really given us the factory of the future? Major robotic assembly lines have been ordered, delivered, and installed. How rewarding have they been?

There seems to be a growing unease with the validity of some of the projected results of programmed assembly. Why is the tension surfacing so quickly? One reason is that both technical and popular press often report engineering research as production-ready. These reports, coupled with wild projections by stock analysts, have misled upper management.

Further, I've seen little discussion of the differences in assembly setups for oriented parts versus loose bulk parts. In fact, where parts are first oriented and supplied by magazine, conveyor, or overhead carrier, robots alone may have the programmable dexterity and weight-handling ability needed; this capability may not be available in conventional pick-and-place units. For unoriented parts, the necessary orientation provided by parts feeders will usually eliminate the need for robotic manipulation.

Also, there is a tendency to equate parts transfer with the totality of assembly, ignoring problems of parts staging or fixturing, parts feeding, inprocess inspection, and parts joining--which are usually the more difficult tasks of assembly line design.

Reality sets in

Academic research is no longer euphoric about automating assembly. Purdue's CIDMAC (NSF grant) professors state: "With few exceptions, automated assembly is beyond the capability of currently available mechanical devices... It will be some time before robots have the sensory capabilities to do much more than precision placement."

Other NSF sources also say that the technology simply is not there. And they add, "The media has not helped. There's been a lot of hype and gloomy forecasting of job loss... There have been many forecasts of terrible things that will happen to our economy if we don't install robots by the thousands. These statements have led to a lot of studis; so besides the untold millions spent on robots and machine vision, there are more millions spent on studies, all of which are speculative."

These experts are saying that the concept of the universal robot is losing popularity. Why the retreat from the flexible robot for assembly? First, creators of the concept expected problems to be solved by designing suitable assembly tools for use in sensor-controlled robots. My belief is that reduction in assembly costs, direct or indirect, will be more readily achieved by better design of the product than by any breaktrough in the tools of assembly. Better product design will even reduce manual-assembly costs.

Recognizing assembly requirements during product design will be the single largest factor in improving all assembly productivity and in many cases will make automatic assembly economically practical where older designs precluded automation. In fact, there is an increase in orders for assembly machinery placed before product design is complete, allowing systems builders to participate in final product and component design. Also, muc flexibility in assembly systems will come from proper integrated design of product families.

The tools to help

The lates programmable controllers have motion control, high-speed calculation, and data processing. They will reduce system design and debugging time, and help solve very real problems of electronic noise suppression.

Machine vision, freed from the shackles of robot-control research, is increasing in capability. Unfortunately, the market's jungle warfare could seriously limit that development. There are at least 140 companies competing in the field, and a lot of wild promises and growth predictions that will fall by the wayside. As happened to robot builders, economic realities will soon put the brakes on uncontrolled growth. GM has entered the arena, providing capital and technical direction for a few choice firms. At present, however, vision systems are not user friendly. They require lengthy and costly emperical application. There are severe constraints in their application.

Finally, the so-called "intelligent" assembly robots are not commercially available, but this is a blessing in disguise to the robotic world. The assembly robot as a technology is a harmful myth. But, judiciously used as a tool, the robot can be most versatile in implementing programmed motion. Such application requires full understanding of the total mechanized assembly system--knowledge commonly held by the designers of conventional assembly machines, not robot builders!

We must assess these new tools in the light of economic reality and their application with the available human resources. Don't expect to purchase solutions, but rather to identify the tools that, in proper proportion and guided by human intelligence, can make us more efficient producers.
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Author:Riley, Frank J.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Sep 1, 1985
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