Last week, Universal Robots A/S and Phillips Corp. announced a distributor agreement intended to make it easier for manufacturers to apply collaborative robots to machine-tending tasks. Universal Robots is currently the leading provider of cobot arms, and Phillips is the largest distributor of Haas CNC machines.
Small and midsize manufacturers in the U.S. need new ways to stay competitive, said the companies. Even leaders in their respective fields need to find partners to reach their target markets, but they need criteria and good timing.
The Robot Report spoke with Stu Shepherd, regional sales director for the Americas at Universal Robots, and Michael Garner, president of Phillips’ commercial division and chairman of Haas Automation Inc.‘s North American distributor channel.
While Universal Robots and Phillips Corp. have served similar customers for years, what led to this partnership now?
Shepherd: We at Universal Robots wanted to find ways to work with certain customers. We’ve had success with machine tools, but we didn’t have the reach into the market, so we wanted to work closer with companies that understand their needs.
When you look at the machine-tool world, Haas has a large presence. Phillips’ approach of taking care of customers after a sale matches up to ours very well. It has a culture and best practices that are similar to ours. Michael and his team listen to customers, and he’s a great mentor.
Garner: It’s often hard to find perfect timing. UR is in the market, has experience in industry, and has made improvements to its products [such as the e-Series line]. They were ideal for involvement in serving CNC [computer numerical control] machine-tending needs.
Phillips’ mission statement is to improve metalworking competency by applying great technology for competitive advantage. Competing in the global economy is not something that the U.S. has always given attention to.
The biggest challenge is access to a skilled workforce. There are 600,000 open advanced manufacturing jobs. There are varying estimates of what that gap will be in five to 10 years, but it won’t get smaller.
Unemployment is at an all-time low, so we’ve got to embrace technology and bring competency to our core customer base — small and midsize manufacturers, job shops. We can help them understand that UR collaborative robots are easy to deploy and to adapt to almost any environment with relatively little work.
Customers tell us they need more skilled operators and programmers in all areas of advanced manufacturing. We can take a segment of their business and make them more productive so they can redeploy employees. This makes the workers more valuable, and they can earn higher wages, so everybody benefits.
How are UR cobots well-suited for tending Haas CNC machines?
Garner: We chose UR for ease of use, short lead times, and quick availability. The UR+ ecosystem of suppliers and vendors allows us to quickly customize a robot for a machine-tending solution with a set group of vendors. This makes them easy to set up so it can quickly help them on the shop floor.
Shepherd: Anybody should be able to afford and put in a robot, and it shouldn’t require a tremendous amount of engineering to put in. Our No. 1 goal is to de-risk applications with a little bit of initial help.
With UR+ partners, there are certain application standards. What used to be custom-designed tools and custom interface packages are now plug and play. There are the same functions on the teach pendant and the operator panel.
Together, we’re working with positioning of parts, making it easy to adapt and addressing the fact that most target manufacturers — low-volume, high-mix environments — can’t really afford changeovers of tooling. The robot has the intelligence designed in; the minute an operator has to pick up tools [for a changeover], they may not have the knowledge or confidence.
Half or more of the cobot applications are pre-engineered, so users can produce parts by the end of a shift, speeding payback.
We’re rounding out the last corners — introducing parts in and out of a work cell — driving more costs out. With buffering parts, machines can run second or third shifts.
How big is the demand for machine tending? What’s the role of VersaBuilt’s Haas CNC Integration Kit?
Shepherd: Proactively and in parallel, we’ve seen lots of places with UR tending Haas machines. We have about 1,200 installed on machine tools globally, and Phillips’ installed base of 19,000 is a glimpse of a market that’s unaddressed.
A few months ago, I saw 10 applications, all with the same UR model, and all 10 of them did things differently. I said, “We can do better. Can we standardize this?”
VersaBuilt stepped in for this challenge, and its interface enables any program stored on the Haas CNC machine to be executed through UR’s teach pendant. It’s simpler and faster. VersaBuilt went live on UR+ this spring, and there are a number of things we’re working on together.
Garner: Our 160 employees advise customers on what manufacturing technologies are available and new, and how to apply them to their current shops.
Two years ago, Phillips dedicated a team of application engineers to help optimize manufacturing processes. This could be tool paths, more sophisticated applications of UR cobots to processes, and redeploying existing labor to other areas of the shop floor where it’s needed, such as programming and quality assurance.
How much educating of small and midsize manufacturers do you still need to do around cobots?
Garner: There’s still a bit of a stigma in the market to such products. It’s based more on not knowing about them, so it’s more effective to hold open houses or lunch and learn sessions. Phillips has nine facilities where we can bring in customers for live demonstrations.
Once customers can see how simple the robot is to program and deploy and how easy it is to change from one machine to another, they grow in acceptability.
Shepherd: Customers were asking us separately, “How much do you know about these guys?” They were searching both Universal Robots and Phillips, looking for that tipping point. Now, customers can have confidence that they’re supported in both directions, providing a strategic advantage.
At events such as Automate 2019 and the Robotics Summit & Expo, we heard a lot about cobots and ease of use. How important is that evolution?
Shepherd: We’re still trying to meet our total customer base. Robotics was traditionally in heavy manufacturing, automotive, and construction, so a lot of people don’t think that robots are for them and are too busy to go to trade shows.
Robotics has changed. The things we’re doing now, I wish we could have done in the ’80s. If you can use a cellphone, you can use a robot. That makes people excited to use a robot to make more money.
Garner: “Lights-out” manufacturing may be too much for some people, and I’m really cautious about talking about this with a lot of our applications. People hear “lights out,” and they think “unattended.”
It’s really a shortcoming of where we’ve been focusing automation and machine tending. It’s more about how to to better utilize the available technology and the current workforce’s skills and creativity to increase productivity.
Phillips works with other robots and integrators in the industrial space. We’re really focused on helping customers be more competitive. UR is an asset to us for optimizing spindle uptime. The big opportunity we see here is to bring a UR robot with us and easily adapt it to a Haas CNC machine. It’s easy to deploy to an application and brings immediate credibility. You can’t do that with a traditional industrial robot.
The Robot Report has launched the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo focuses on improving the design, development and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum.
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