The electricity crisis in South Africa has inspired an increased interest in robotisation, driving the use of robotics in automation, says power and automation technology group ABB robotics division manager Bongani Twala.
“Because of the interruptions in production, most companies are running on a 24-hour shift basis and one of the best ways to do this is to deploy robots,” he says.
Twala comments that the deployment of robotics also lowers the overhead costs of lighting and heating required for prolonged work shifts. The use of robots can improve operating costs, reducing lighting costs by 8% and heating costs by 20%.
Uninterrupted power- supply back-up systems are implemented, where possible, to protect the production process automation systems from the stop-starts that load-shedding imposes on automated systems.
He points out that robots are being increasingly used in an effort to improve product quality and consistency, while deploying staff from the particular process elswhere in the operation.
“Compared to humans, the output rate of robots is very high. There are no breaks, they can work 24-hour shifts and new products are introduced [more quickly] and more easily into assembly lines. Much less training time is required for robots. The use of robots increases flexibility in product manufacturing and the accuracy of robots reduces waste. Robotics reduces capital costs,” Twala comments.
“Further, robotics reduce or eliminate the need for employees to work in hazardous environments. This increases staff motivation levels, and employees are promoted to positions demanding higher skills, with lesser tasks allocated to robots,” he says.
Twala says that robotic systems are reaping the benefits of four developments in the field.
The first development is force control. He explains that the idea behind force control is to simplify the programming of robots. While robotics programming previously required exceptional skills levels, this latest advance enables the user to hold the gripper or arm of a robot and direct it into the required motion.
The robot will remember the motion and replicate human movement, automatically generating the software through this directive. “The effect of this development will be that a lot more people will be able to access, use and program robots,” explains Twala.
The second development involves vision systems and means that robots can have three-dimensional vision using off-the-shelf equipment, such as video cameras.
The third development, or add-on, is a remote service that enables the robot to contact the service engineer, using GPRS technology, before it runs into problems or failures. The engineer can then remotely gain access to the robot through a laptop to the problem. The engineer then alerts the owners of the plant where the robot is deployed to the problem and recommends a solution.
The fourth development is the introduction of off-line programming. Twala explains that this enables the robot’s entire performance and the factory environment it operates in to be simulated at ABB on the client’s behalf.
This demonstrates the real-place and real-time performance of the robot. The client is thus able to see if the robot will be able to meet with its expectations before an investment decision is made. Actual programs can also be automatically generated from off-line programming, simplifying the programming of robots.
Twala comments that, in the last 15 years, robots have predominantly been deployed in general industry, with the most popular applications including picking, placing and palletising. Robots have traditionally been deployed extensively in the automotive industry.
He says that recent robotic application projects supplied by ABB have included a project for bakery automation systems, which was completed in December last year. Robots were deployed for picking, placing and palletising functions. The systems were custom-designed locally for the clients.
Another robotics application was supplied to the aluminium smelter industry in Richards Bay and in Mozambique for Cast House Automation applications. The aluminium ingots are picked up and palletised and then packed onto a truck for delivery. The labelling of the ingots is also carried out by robots. The Richards Bay project was in operation in October 2007.
Twala says that these projects include support, training and breakdown support.
Meanwhile, in an effort to tackle skills shortages evident in the field, ABB has launched a funding programme for technical colleges in South Africa. The programme, which was established in May this year, will see ABB invest R1,5-million over the next three years to fast-track technical skills development at local technical colleges for disadvantaged learners.
Twala says that ABB also offers practical hands-on training, having absorbed about 30 technicon graduates, without any practical skills, into the company at the end of last year.
“This is the first time that ABB has done this and it will be something that it is looking at doing on an annual basis for the future,” says Twala.