A vital component of a robotic system is the controller-attached teach pendant, which remains the most common interface to program an industrial robot. While the buttons and functions have been optimized to accommodate greater functionality, and the general look and feel has been upgraded for ergonomics and familiarity, the main premise continues to be the same: It’s a handheld device used by an operator to remotely control, guide and program the motions of a robot step by step.
However, the way manufacturers are approaching robot integration and programming is changing. Easing into robotics has gone from strictly contacting an integrator to perform a plant audit and subsequent turnkey workcell design and build to a do-it-yourself mentality as the knowledge and technological accessibility gained via Industry 4.0 has empowered a growing number of manufacturers to go it alone.
From doing a proof of concept to buying every component needed for robotic application success (e.g., robot, gripper, vision system, etc.), more and more decision makers are looking for out-of-the-box solutions that are readily accessible and easily understood. The notion that every component should come out of the shipping container ready for use is gaining momentum. Moreover, just like a diverse group of people understands how to unequivocally operate mobile and tablet devices, so too is the growing expectation for greater ease of use where robots are concerned.
Gone are the days of only having a highly trained programmer operating a robot. While there are complex robotic workcells and intricate operations that still warrant management by a qualified workcell champion with a high degree of programming and standard teach pendant expertise, a wider user group, including novice robot programmers, is emerging and dictating ease-of-use capability. But, what does the term “ease of use” really mean in relation to this user group and robotics?
In a nutshell, it suggests that from start to finish, a user’s entire robot journey should be straightforward and fairly effortless. It is a non-traditional approach to robotics where the focus is on unlimited system capability rather than highly specific programming with or without a teach pendant – as many new robot users are more comfortable with intuitive software interfaces versus electrical wiring. Breaking it down further, ease of use signifies much more.
1. Beyond the “no code” revolution
Over a decade ago, the dominant approach for catering to programming concerns was centered around the idea of a unified PLC programming environment where experienced PLC programmers would not need knowledge of a separate robotic programming language to gain complete control over every component in a given network (e.g., robots, servos, variable-frequency drives, etc.). While PLC integration solutions, such as Yaskawa’s MLX300, have been highly advantageous and are still used extensively for tasks like picking, packing and palletizing, they are only one part of the programming puzzle.
In the last five years, the software industry has catapulted the “no code” revolution, where users can use flexible development platforms and application modules to program an app or a system without writing a single line of code. Highly efficient and cost-effective, especially for tasks involving robotic weld systems, offline programming suites like Delfoi Spot and Delfoi Arc as well as Yaskawa’s MotoSim, give programmers the ability to design, test and adjust a robot program from a PC-based virtual environment.
Furthermore, easy-to-use teach pendant applications, such as the Universal Weldcom Interface (UWI), enable full utilization of the advanced capabilities on digital welding power supplies, providing users familiar with welding with easy control of any weld process or parameter, including voltage, amperage and wire feed speed.
More recently, robot manufacturers and third-party suppliers have created high-tech teach pendants where drag-and-drop options and patented technologies for intuitive programming are radically changing the way a robot is jogged, giving nearly anyone the ability to program a robot. Again, while each of these developments can be helpful, they still may lack ultimate ease of use, where machine learning and adaptive technologies are growing for a number of applications like inspection, machine tending, assembly and palletizing.
2. Past the collaborative promise
From human-collaborative robots – inherently safe by design and capable of working safely with, or in close proximity to humans – to industrial robots equipped to work collaboratively via one of the four modes of collaboration (safety monitored stop, speed and separation monitoring, power and force limiting [PFL], and hand guiding), collaborative-type robots have brought the ease-of-use concept to everybody. From investing and buying to installation and programming, the world of cobots is saturated in simplicity.
While this has been a fortuitous stepping-stone toward accommodating repetitive high-mix production for many manufacturers, easy-to-use robot utilization entails a lot more than using a single PFL cobot in the presence of human workers. It’s about using the right robots for the right application. Every robot – industrial or collaborative – should have the ability to be smartly and easily deployed.
3. Diving into robot installations
As mentioned, the traditional up-front planning approach to buying a robot through a robot manufacturer or integrator is changing. To deal with stringent market demands and to bridge the gap between staff and application needs, manufacturers new to robotics as well as others building a competitive edge, are testing the waters and turning to more affordable, reliable and flexible robots with peripheral technologies to create intelligent factories capable of high-mix, low-volume production.
While helpful, complete buy in from everyone within a company is no longer a necessity – as time is often money. With this in mind, robot buyers are jumping in head-first, adopting a trial-and-error approach to robotic automation that requires a greater focus on programming at the beginning of the implementation process. Differing from the traditional method – where robot programming takes a back seat to concepts like workcell layout, technologies, simulation and more – this plug-and-play method can be a highly successful way for manufacturers to harness the power of robots.
4. Smart approach to managing complexity
For manufacturers that take the do-it-yourself approach, many quickly learn there is more than just attaching a gripper and jogging the robot point by point. Inevitably, less experienced robot users will hit a wall with issues such as implementing OSHA-approved safety standards, reducing cycle times, accommodating operator interactions, adding extra robots and implementing coordinated motion between all devices.
While the idea of managing this type of complexity would traditionally be a huge deterrent for manufacturers wanting to move forward independently, there is now a smart approach that enables all of this, which includes two factors.
1. Highly intuitive robot programming: While a decent selection of tablet-based teach pendants with intuitive HMI features exists to simplify the robot programming process, the key to cracking the code for greater ease of use goes beyond touch screens with familiar buttons. Introduced via the Yaskawa Smart Pendant, built-in technology for easier control of robot movement is vital.
Internal sensors within the teach pendant enable collaborative and industrial robot arms to adapt to the user’s position, allowing the user to jog the robot with familiar left-right, away-toward and up-down commands. This eliminates the use of conventional coordinate frames (X, Y, Z) that can confuse and frustrate new robot users.
Other difficult areas of programming have also been addressed. Using simplified yet powerful Inform programming, each robot command can now be clearly explained via descriptive text. Additionally, various help functions can further explain commands, as needed, essentially giving the user access to a CliffsNotes-style manual.
Most importantly, a highly intuitive teach pendant such as this provides a fast, simple learning curve for quick and easy implementation of a robot system, alleviating upfront investment in robot training. A week-long class is no longer needed to learn what buttons to push; instead, courses on robotic concepts to enhance production are now applicable.
2. Powerful controller functionality: Skeptics may doubt that simplified, efficient technology, as found with the Smart series, can be used to develop highly tuned applications that increase productivity and deliver return on investment. However, precise and powerful robot control that offers no compromise between ease of use and capability is a reality, facilitating exceptional robot performance for a growing number of applications, including inspection, machine tending, assembly, palletizing and more.
From being able to talk to a robot controller from a remote computer to the ability to write real-time control software, a variety of user-friendly programming technologies exist. Keep in mind, a robot application entails more than just the physical robot. There are grippers, vision systems, part in-feed and out-feed, safety systems, etc.
Whether a manufacturer is working independently or with a robot supplier or integrator to implement easy-to-use robotic automation, the ability to simply integrate peripherals through extension apps is further boosting intuitive teach pendant functionality. Just as developers can easily package and distribute apps for PCs and smart phones, it is now possible for an OEM or third-party developer to provide add-ons and apps for robots. Desktop tools, such as Smart Packager, can combine a number of components into a single convenient file for optimal flexibility, alleviating custom work while saving time and resources.
While each application should drive the type of robotic system needed, easy robot programming with full capability from a teach pendant and controller is now a reality for many tasks. Highly important to robot programming success is understanding how to bridge the skills gap of the current workforce and the robotic application.
If the employees being hired are coming from trade schools, a traditional approach to programming via a standard teach pendant will most likely be okay. If new hires are coming from universities and a rich programming background, a focus on modern programming languages should be considered. Regardless, ease of use no longer has to take a backseat where application complexity is concerned for a variety of applications, leveling the industrial landscape for manufacturers needlessly hesitant to take the robotic automation leap.