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robots re/make machine tending: challenging an inconvenient truth

in rethinking robotics by Jim Lawton

In the never-ending quest to increase productivity and efficiency, manufacturing has its very own “inconvenient truth.” That truth? Hundreds of tasks in the manufacturing environment require someone to stand in front of a machine “tending” it to get the job done. Press brakes, lathes, milling machines, printed circuit board testers, and ultrasonic welders are just some of the machines where people insert an object, initiate an activity and wait for the activity to conclude. The intervals between start and finish – often in the 30 to 90 seconds range – are too short to allow the person to walk away, do something else, and come back. So, how much productivity is lost when workers are idling until the equipment is ready?

Baxter, a smart, collaborative robot, tending an Autobag machine at Vanguard Plastics

The other truth is that these types of tasks are a perfect example of the 90 percent of tasks that, until now, have largely not been accessible to automation. Why? From a purely economical perspective, installing an expensive robot to tend to an expensive machine is anything but low-cost. From a practical perspective, the machines need to be easily and quickly accessible so that humans can address any issues and maintain maximum utilization, making caged robots not a viable option. Finally, from a safety perspective, these machines are often in close proximity to other equipment and people, requiring the robots be safe enough to work collaboratively in small spaces.

With advances in hardware and software, robots “understand” the context of the task required and possess the cognitive and mechanical abilities to deliver that task. These smart, collaborative robots are trained to do a task, and, unlike more traditional robots, can:

  • navigate process variation and semi-structured environments that include imprecise indexed conveyors, totes on wheels and other variations
  • feel parts into position in a process designed for human hands without damaging the component or the machine
  • work cage-free, allowing portability and greater utilization of floor space, a critical commodity in many shops
  • eliminate or reduce the need for complex fixturing, saving time and money, and making it much easier to change applications quickly
  • perform these type of tasks on a variety of machines without re-programming
  • repeat, repeat, repeat

One company, Vanguard Plastics, is using Rethink Robotics’ Baxter for machine tending today. Trained by colleagues on the line, this robot

  • unloads medicine cups from a conveyor that is downstream of a plastics injection molding machine
  • feeds an auto-bagger, which seals and cuts the finished product
  • picks up the sealed bags and puts them in a tote for packaging

The start-to-finish time for this operation is just a couple of minutes. In the first 45 days, Baxter bagged more than 800,000 cups. Having the robot manage the operation gives people opportunities to focus on other tasks, drive productivity and build more, faster, with less direct labor.

Most machine tending is repetitive, non-value work that is often unfulfilling for a worker. Standing around waiting for a machine to complete a task is like watching paint dry. People are more productive and more likely to contribute to innovation, creativity and problem-solving when they are engaged in a task. Let the robots tend the machine, leave the more cognitive work to people and watch what happens.

(1 comment)


About the Author

Jim Lawton

Jim had a choice upon graduating from Tufts University – chase a dream as a concert pianist or become part of the inaugural Leaders for Manufacturing Program at MIT. He chose the latter– dedicating his career to developing and delivering innovative solutions that improve the business of manufacturing. Internally at HP, and then at breakthrough start-ups in e-commerce, inventory optimization and supply chain risk management, Jim’s never once looked back. His charter today: capture the power of data and analytics to push the standard for world-class manufacturing higher—once again.


1 comment on this article

Edward Brooks March 21, 2016 at 7:13 am

Vanguard Plastics Corporation, a custom injection molding company based in Southington, CT, is using Baxter to take medicine cups off a conveyor, feed them into a bagging machine and then move the bagged cups to the next location. In only six weeks working on this application Baxter bagged over 800,000 cups.


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