Industrial bots

April 28, 2012

If you’re interested in heavy industry, here’s an interesting video about how a Mercedes E-class auto is built. Lots o’ robotic action going on.

I came across this in a post titled Feed The Monkey at Sippican Cottage. The gist of that post, as I took it, was useful work is nitpicked to death by Those Who Would Regulate.

Maybe so. I’ve often thought we have entirely too many people who want to manage, mostly by virtue of their credentials (as opposed to their acumen) — relative to the number of people who actually do useful work with their knowledge.

But what struck me about this clip was the amazing amount of skull sweat that had obviously gone into building this factory. Watch the robot set the dashboards and then back itself out of the vehicle, without leaving a mark on the piece or the vehicle. It takes an incredible amount of thought to design a robot that will do that. I’m sure it took a team of people to design that machine.

And it takes a fair amount of thought and concentration just to get the robot adapted to a particular task – after the robot itself has been designed and built. There’s a lot to understand about how an industrial robot controller works before you can actually put one to work. Getting the robot to move heavy things is pretty easy; getting it to move heavy things without damaging them or damaging other things is an entirely different kettle o’ fish.

Of course the Germans aren’t the only ones doing this. The Japanese are no slouches when it comes to automated manufacturing. Here’s a snippet from a Wikipedia article about "Lights Out" manufacturing.

FANUC, the Japanese robotics company, has been operating a “lights out” factory for robots since 2001.[7] “Robots are building other robots at a rate of about 50 per 24-hour shift and can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days at a time. “Not only is it lights-out,” says Fanuc vice president Gary Zywiol, “we turn off the air conditioning and heat too.”

I’ve been working with a FANUC ‘spider robot’ the last few months. It’s like the two in the center of the frame in this video. (They’re M-1iA models.)

It looks like the robots in the video are using Fanuc’s built-in machine vision system to see the things they’re picking up (when the red light appears). Our team used a custom, hyperspectral vision system to find particles and pick them out of a stream of material on a conveyor belt. But the end result is fairly similar.

These robots move pretty quickly: they’ll pick three particles per second. That may not sound like much until you calculate that it’s nearly 11,000 particles per hour — for however many hours you want to run them.

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