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Robots supporting pandemic-era manufacturing

Advances in the industrial robotics field were put on display during an Automation Technology Expo at the Robex manufacturing facility last week.

The event displayed the newest in robotics technology for applications in a variety of fields that use automation to increase safety and efficiency for repetitive task situations.

“There’s a labor shortage right now, in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution. These companies cannot find enough people to keep up with production and to grow,” Robex President Craig Francisco said. “By automating we’re able to keep those companies at a production level where they want to be.”

There’s a local connection with Robex to Wood County manufacturing. The 22,000-square-foot Robex building is located in the Levis Commons complex, with convenient access to Owens-Illinois, one of their largest clients.

Robex is a privately-held company, started six years ago by CEO Jon Parker, a St. John’s Jesuit and Bowling Green State University graduate with more than 25 years of experience in the industry.

The industry and the company have experienced growth since the coronavirus pandemic began. More than 20 employees have been added to the staff in the last year, for a total of approximately 80.

“Then with the on-shoring, during the pandemic, these manufacturers are starting to bring more back to the states, which is what we want, but they now have to find out how they can produce it. So automation will help,” Francisco said. “Everywhere across the country they have 30 to 40 openings and HR hires, they show up and they quit two days later. Then they hire again. It’s really difficult.”

Robex designs robot solutions for many different industries, including glass, plastics and paper.

Francisco said Robex has doubled revenues since the first expo in January 2020, right before the start of the pandemic. That first expo had one mobile industrial robot and one cobot, which is a general type of robot that provides computer-controlled collaborative assistance to a person.

This past week’s event had a half dozen industrial robots, some modified, as well as cobots.

“That stuff, we design, build and combine, we’re an integrator. They (the robots) show up as a big piece of metal. They don’t do anything. We will put any tooling on top of them, but the programming is all done here,” Francisco said.

Cal Bowers, Robex director of business development, showed off the cobot platform, which he said is showing the most growth today. A cobot is a general type of robot that provides computer-controlled assistance to a person.

One demonstration showed how the robotic arm will stop moving if it bumps into something, like the person it is assisting. The demonstration piece had a hand-like attachment on the end of a multi-jointed arm mounted to the floor. It was able to pick up small fragile boxes, about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, and move them from one place to another, in about a 3-foot radius.

For comparison, the largest robotic arms, which are produced in Japan by Fanuc, can lift and manipulate more than 2,000 kilograms, or 4,500 pounds. Some of the arms move and pack loaded pallets, cutting out the need for repetitive tasks. Those units are not cobots, and need a cage around them.

“We’re an authorized system integrator for Fanuc,” Bowers said, while showing off a conveyor belt system they designed with multiple robots that pack and label boxes to be palletized and shipped.

Each of the various robots can have different ends put on them, from optical units that recognize missing parts for quality control to the basic bar codes.

Cognex Corporation was demonstrating the various uses for the electric eyes.

The arms can also place labels, using suction devices, to actual manufacturing with welders.

“If it’s a monotonous task, or it’s dangerous, or it puts a lot of strain on the body, automation will help eliminate that. Then that person can be moved somewhere else in the factory, because there are huge openings and needs for people to do more,” Francisco said.

“They can’t find people. Why not automate something that’s very easy for us to do — it’s not easy for a lot of companies, but it is for us — then take that person and have them bring more value to the company doing something different? Ten years ago it was eliminating jobs. Now they can’t find enough people.”

The tooling is defined as custom conveyors, often for loading and unloading purposes.

Francisco compared the MIR platforms to the much smaller Starship Technologies robots that do deliveries on the Bowling Green State University campus. However the flat top of the MIR is designed to fit a standard shipping pallet, which is 48 inches long and 40 inches wide.

“We use the larger (MRIs) to move pallets. That’s what we do. They replace forklifts inside production facilities. You don’t want fork trucks moving all over manufacturing facilities, which is what happens today,” Francisco said. “It has all the safety built into it.”

The safety features are electric eyes and laser sensors that detect objects, including people, that may be stationary or mobile. Earlier generations of robots did not have sensors, even though they looked completely mobile. They actually traveled along magnetic tracks embedded in factory floors and usually had guard rails around their little roadways. With the sensors, that is no longer necessary.

In the last six months, Francisco said they have sold more than 40 of those units to facilities located throughout North America.

“These are purchased by many Fortune 100 companies, many brands you see in the grocery store every day. A lot of opportunity,” Francisco said.

Originally posted on sent-trib.com on May 27, 2021, written by

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