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Large companies that manufacture products in high volumes have long been able to justify the significant investment required to set up custom robotic manufacturing processes. They require robots that can do the same task over long periods of time without change and can permanently dedicate areas of space to these installations. However SMEs find it hard to justify the high cost of robotics in their manufacturing processes. Their needs can change and the small batch quantities often don’t provide enough justification to install a dedicated robotic cell for one task alone. This does not mean that many of the manual, repetitive tasks conducted in small manufacturing companies are unsuitable for automation. Articulated robot arms can be used for a wide range of tasks including assembly, painting, machine loading, product packing and goods handling all of which were historically done by humans. These repetitive manual tasks tie up employees who could otherwise be used on higher value, more challenging and engaging work. If SMEs can find ways to use robotics in their manufacturing processes they stand to gain significantly but they need affordable and flexible solutions that can be re-purposed from task to task. This would allow them to justify their initial investment over a longer period of time that could include the same robot performing a range of tasks in different configurations.
We are developing a low cost, modular robotics system that is a versatile tool to suit the varying needs of an SME with frequently changing applications. Using a set of ‘plug and play’ modular components we intend to enable SMEs to not only easily configure a robot for their initial application but also to reconfigure it for different applications whenever their requirements change. The product will consist of an ecosystem of cost-effective modular parts that allow the robot to be configured in multiple ways, to carry out a wide range of repetitive tasks with minimal setup overheads.
We intend to achieve this using a set of components that provide a good level of performance and that have been specifically designed to be cost effective to manufacture. We are working with a range of suppliers in the far East to keep our manufacturing overheads as low as possible. Offering a significant cost benefit over existing industrial robots and makes the technology much more affordable for SMEs and research users.
We are building a partnership with another company who has developed software that is very easy for end users to configure. It will enable inexperienced users to quickly learn how to get the system to do the required task, without the need for previous programming experience or specialist knowledge. It will be possible to program the robot using teach and repeat methods where the user simply drags the arm to a required position and then presses a button to store the location. This ability to program the robot simply is key. It enables the users to reassign the robots to new tasks with minimal effort and allows them to get the most value out of the initial investment in the system.
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