By Ryan Kelly, General Manager of AMT’s San Francisco Tech Lab
Reposted with permission from the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS)

 

Traditionally, robots have made financial sense only for the automotive industry and large OEMs. But now, small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) are setting their sights on robots.. Despite high demand, up-front costs have historically created a bottleneck to mass adoption.

It’s a perfect storm. Advanced technologies have made robots easier to use and less expensive, while the labor shortage has worsened. Plus, demand for parts is increasing, fueled by OEMs seeking more domestic sources. SMMs have reached a breaking point that justifies the investment in robotic automation, even for those that focus on high mix-low volume.

“There are so many small manufacturers out there that robot companies haven’t talked to or even know where they are, so there’s a lot of growth potential for robots in small companies,” says Gene Russell, president and CEO of Manex Consulting, a nonprofit partner with the U.S. Department of Commerce that focuses on helping SMMs survive and thrive.

Advancements in robot tech

Evolving technologies have helped make robots cost-effective and easier to use so they’ve become highly attractive for SMMs. Simpler software and intuitive interfaces reduce the learning curve and eliminate the need to hire an in-house expert. Cart-mounted robots with interchangeable end-of-arm tooling can be moved around the shop to do different tasks as needed.

Off-the-shelf robots

Another option benefiting SMMS are pre-engineered robotic systems, which are less costly and faster to implement than custom systems.

Acieta (IMTS booth 236270), a system integrator for FANUC robots, is in the midst of growing its pre-engineered side of the business and plans to reach 50% by 2025. Currently, the company is selling 75% custom systems and 25% pre-engineered systems for welding, press brake, palletizing, and machine loading applications.

“Pre-engineered robotic systems are a lower risk for us and for our smaller manufacturing customers because they’re fully functional, tested and vetted,” says Robby Komljenovic, CEO at Acieta. “Plus, they are economical because a manufacturer can enter the robotics market for under $100,000 and start to see an ROI within 12 months.”

Initial cost vs ROI

Although robot prices are dropping, a six-figure capital investment may still seem cost prohibitive to smaller companies who are focused on initial costs.

“The software and upfront integration costs are a huge impediment to a small company,” Russell says. “In some cases I’ve seen larger OEMs in the aerospace and semiconductor sectors invest in their small suppliers and buy them automation so they can meet deadlines.”

However, SMMs with a longer-term business view who make purchase decisions based on the total cost of ownership are seeing pre-engineered robots as a good investment.

“We want to get as many robots into U.S. manufacturing as possible, so we looked at the return on investment that a typical manufacturer needs to choose automation, which is less than two years,” Komljenovic says. “These pre-engineered systems have an ROI less than 18 months, and once smaller manufacturers see their productivity increases, they’re open to investing in more custom automation down the road. It opens the door to realizing the benefits of robots.”

Hands-off approach

Rapid Robotics (IMTS booth 236167) created an even simpler approach by introducing a subscription-based program for its Rapid Machine Operator (RMO), a cobot that is pre-programmed for common, simpler tasks such as pad printing, injection molding, ultrasonic welding, and parts inspection. For $2,100 per month, manufacturers can lease an RMO that comes complete with programming and hardware, plus 24/7 service, such as troubleshooting, repairs, reprogramming and preventive maintenance for a complete hands-off experience.

“We offer small manufacturers a more cost-effective option to hiring laborers and in-house robot experts,” says Jordan Kretchmer, cofounder and CEO of Rapid Robotics. “Manufacturers that run a Rapid Robot for three shifts, operate at an average rate of $5.15 an hour, which is much lower than the average rate in the U.S. of $28.50 an hour for human labor. Our customers need those people working on the highest value, highest margin tasks that are not necessarily easy for a robot to accomplish.”

Once not even a possibility, modern robots are fast becoming a requirement for SMMs to take advantage of onshoring trends and avoid growing labor challenges. Expect to see a robot in a small shop near you.

Some shops are using easily teachable cobots by Productive Robotics. Their four OB7 Series 7-axis smart cobots require no coding or programming. They are engineered to handle a variety of payloads and sizes while accomplishing simple to complex tasks. Manth Manufacturing in Tonawanda, New York, has worked closely with Absolute Machine Tools (IMTS booth: 338519), the importer and distributor of these cobots.

“The simple programming features of the OB7 collaborative robots is what really attracted me to this cobot. We can easily adjust the arm speeds and movements just by pushing a button,” says Manth General Manager Duane Manth. “Every movement is recorded. The OB7 is programmed using a tablet and can be taught new jobs every time.”

See a list of robot companies exhibiting at IMTS 2022.