Elizabeth Rennie, senior editor, APICS magazine writes that playwright Karel Capek introduced the word "robot" in his 1921 play R.U.R. Derived from the Czech word for "servitude," Capek's robots were characters in a utopian society, where machines initially brought humans numerous benefits but, eventually, caused the dehumanization of society. The far-reaching success of the play instantly popularized the word-and it hasn't lost its status decades later.
While the long-standing moral debate of "man versus machine" is likely to continue for some time, Jim Kosmala, general manager for FANUC Robotics Southeast, has some interesting thoughts on the issue. He asks North American operations management professionals to take a good look at the labor shortage, the high price of health care, transportation costs, quality defects, long lead times, shop floor downtime, worker fatigue, and other safety hazards, and the now infamous side effects associated with some low-wage overseas labor.
Consider robots, he says. Robots offer local control, consistent quality, heightened uptime, and increased output. Plus, as worker salaries continue to rise, the cost of robots is going down. For example, one FANUC LR Mate 200iC LEAN robot-which he claims replaces three workers-can be purchased for $20,000.
At the September 19, 2007, FANUC Robotics' Intelligent Robotic Applications Forum, company professionals demonstrated the LR Mate and other robotic solutions for assembly, machine tending, packaging, palletizing, bin picking, coating, and arc welding. The event also featured system demonstrations and interactive presentations on two-dimensional (2-D) and three-dimensional (3-D) robotic vision applications.
Seeing the future
One of the new technologies showcased at the forum was FANUC's iRVision system. It features software and a 2-D camera or 3-D sensor that can be connected directly to a standard controller, immediately adding a vision process to a robotic application. Designed for systems requiring a high degree of adaptability and flexibility, these tools provide error-proofing, inspection, and presence-detection functions. The ultimate goal is to enable the machines to properly pick up and place the random parts in a plant or warehouse facility.
The first step in the system is for a robot to interpret features on a part and locate its translation and rotation. Then, a laser projects an image onto the part, which is used to determine height, pitch, and yaw. Videos of the machines in action showed forum attendees the robots' notable rates of speed while performing these tasks, which FANUC professionals say bring about significant improvements in throughput and productivity. In addition, company leaders report the R-2000iB can accelerate and decelerate quickly, reducing cycle time by approximately 5 percent compared to current robot models.
If the comments of several FANUC forum attendees are any indication, vision-equipped robots soon will find their way into many manufacturing plants and warehouse facilities. As these operations managers try to overcome the key challenges confronting them, automation certainly may be a viable solution. Of course, whether or not it's the right resolution for society as a whole will be determined at a much later date.
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