Collaborative robots find sweet spot in plastics processing operations

If you have a technology that combines a relative low cost of entry with a high return on investment, it’s almost inevitable that you will see sales skyrocket. That’s what is happening in the collaborative robotics space, which is projected to reach a compound annual growth rate of almost 60% through 2023, according to a report from Stratistics Market Research Consulting Pvt Ltd.

Founded in 2005, Universal Robots (UR; Odense, Denmark) is a pioneer in the development of collaborative robots that can work safely alongside humans in industrial environments. The cobots bring a number of benefits to plastics processing, according to UR, which amplified that message by returning to ATX East, co-located with PLASTEC East, in New York, NY, last week, and exhibiting earlier this year at NPE for the first time. First impressions of the massive plastics industry event in Orlando, FL, in May were clouded by the booth location, said Brian Dillman, Area Sales Manager covering eastern North America, who spoke with PlasticsToday from UR’s ATX booth.

“The Universal Robots booth was in the south hall, tucked behind the Chinese pavilion, and our immediate reaction was, ‘uh oh, no one’s going to find us.’” If you know the geography of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, the reaction is understandable. But plastics processors did find UR, and for one simple reason: The versatility, efficiency, ease of use and affordability of collaborative robots make them a perfect fit for plastics processing operations of all sizes.

Universal Robots
Universal Robots introduced its line of e-Series cobots this month.

“There are lots of good robotics companies out there that produce machines to get parts out of molds,” said Dillman, who has worked for some of those companies during his 20+ career in automation. “But, what happens to the part after it is removed from the mold? Eighty percent of the time, the part is put on a conveyor or dropped directly into a box. Then, someone picks up the box and takes it somewhere else, where an employee cuts off spurs, chamfers the part and so forth. Where we see value in plastics processing for our equipment is after the part has been removed from the mold,” Dillman told PlasticsToday.

As one example, Dillman cites a medical application that involves two molded halves of a shell. “The picker takes it out of the mold and drops it on a conveyor. It’s picked up by a cobot, which holds it in front of a pincer that cuts off the gates. The part is transferred to an operator, who does some simple chamfering to take off the edges, performs a quick visual inspection, folds it in paper and puts it in a box,” explained Dillman. “You’ve eliminated a couple of steps, and the part is ready to go out the door.” There are countless applications where collaborative robotics can help to reduce the number of times a part is touched, added Dillman.

Cobots can also squeeze into tight spaces, such as the aisles in-between injection molding machines, that are off limits to conventional automation, and they are portable, noted Dillman.

While much has been written about the impact of automation on jobs—and there are two sides to that debate—Dillman shared an anecdote about how cobots are helping to solve one hiring challenge that employers often face. “A manufacturer in Buffalo told me his experience, which is all too familiar in the industry based on my conversations in the field and at trade shows. He told me that at least 30 to 40% of job applicants he sees can’t pass the drug test. ‘Then, there’s the question of whether or not they will stay for training,’ the manufacturer said. ‘I have had guys walk off the job before the lunch break on their first day. If they stay for the training and pick up their first pay check, the watershed moment is if they show up on the following Monday. If they do, I know I’ve got an employee.’” When he tells that story to other manufacturers, said Dilman, many of them nod in agreement.

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