Robots: cheaper than you think?

In the UK in 2021, installations of industrial robots were down by 7% to 2,054 units. This stands in contrast to the European average, where installations rose by 24% to 4,302 units — a new peak. Why then is the UK’s uptake of robotic systems lagging behind global competitors? One major concern is the upfront cost, but did you know that a dispensing robot can cost less than a new car? Here, Peter Swanson, Managing Director of adhesives specialist Intertronics, explains how robotics and automation can support dispensing processes, discusses the costs and identifies opportunities for a healthy return on investment (ROI).

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) World Robot Report, the UK’s robot density in 2021 was 101 units per 10,000 employees. This placed us 24th in the world, behind global leader the Republic of Korea with 932 robots per 10,000 employees, and Europe’s leader Germany with 371 per 10,000 employees. A stark contrast.

In order to compete on a global scale, the UK needs to address this declining uptake in automation. Two pieces of the puzzle are to reduce the risks associated with investing upfront in new technologies, and to build a better understanding of ROI.

Dispensing robots

When looking to invest in dispensing robots, there are four main components to consider. First is the robot, which is used to position and actuate the material dispensing equipment. Second is the dispensing equipment chosen to apply the material ꟷ in generic robot terminology this would be called the end effector. It could be a dispensing valve, pump, syringe or cartridge ꟷ alongside the required controller and material reservoir. Next is tooling, used to hold the parts in place and, finally, the enclosure to ensure health and safety.

The choice of dispensing methodology is complex and material-dependent, so we recommend working with a reliable supplier that understands the chemistry and cure of the materials, the appropriate dispensing technology, and the accompanying robotic system. This will help ensure you invest in an optimal combination of technologies for your application.

When specifying the robot itself, important factors to understand include the work area (robots are available with working areas from 200 x 200 mm upwards), plus the size and weight of the parts, and how many parts will be loaded per cycle. Taller parts may require a gantry robot, rather than a benchtop one. Most dispensing robots are fully-programmable in 3 axes, but 4 axis and 5 axis robots are available for more complex dispensing paths. It’s also important to understand whether the robot will be manually-loaded onto a fixture or fed by a conveyor, as a gantry robot will be needed in the latter case.

Naturally, the required tolerances and repeatability for the application will impact the choice of dispensing methodology and robot. If the application is very demanding, add-ons like automatic dispensing tip alignment, height sensing or vision-based fiducial adjustment may be required.

Your supplier might also be able to integrate other processes into the dispensing application, which further improves ROI. For example, with Intertronics’ archytas series of robot integrations, we have the capability to custom integrate several applications on one machine; including material mixing, dispensing and application, curing, and/or surface preparation. This provides you with consolidated and automated processes that can boost productivity.

So, how much will all this cost? A typical investment in a dispensing robot system is around £30,000 ꟷ £40,000. However, Intertronics has robots available for as low as £5,000.

Improving your process

There are several aspects to paying-off a robot investment. First, ROI, for which you should ask: how long does it take to get your investment back, and what financial benefits will the dispensing robot bring over time?

Another consideration is time to value (TTV), or how long it takes to start earning money back. With dispensing robots, the TTV is almost immediate as long as your supplier delivers, installs and teaches you how to use the robot. Programming is typically simple, using a teach pendant or computer software. Assuming you have product ready to load onto the machine, you can start achieving ROI right away.

Importantly, companies should consider that installing new equipment can be applied as a process of incremental improvement. For instance, you could start by upgrading just your dispensing methodology, then add robotic automation later. An experienced supplier should be able to manage this with little to no redundancy. In addition, some suppliers offer systems in a way that means they can be reprogrammed or reconfigured, and used for another process, meaning another opportunity to get value from the investment.

Dispensing robots can bring a variety of manufacturing benefits like improved productivity, efficiency, throughput, quality and flexibility. Increasingly, manufacturers are able to justify the costs of investing in dispensing robots with the clear opportunities for fast ROI. Manufacturers should also consider how industrial robots provide opportunities to upskill and motivate their workforce, improve their image, and reduce risks related to commerciality and production — all for less than the price of a new car.

For more information on achieving ROI with dispensing robots, visit Intertronics’ website to read our whitepaper, Achieving ROI with robotics.

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