Automation for the General Industry
In episode two of General Industry: OLRP Insights hosted by Octopuz, Jon House sits down with Tom Fischer, Operations Manager at RobotWorx. RobotWorx focuses on providing quality industrial robotic solutions and customized integration worldwide. Earlier this year OCTOPUZ, partnered with RobotWorx to provide Offline Robot Programming (OLRP) as part of their service offering. On January 27, 2021, the following conversation was covered, addressing burning industry questions such as:
- What is the perception of the General Industry today, versus, say 10 years ago?
- What is the #1 misconception companies have when looking at bringing on their first-ever robot cell?
- What kind of full-service solutions are the majority of customers looking for?
Read the transcript below to see what Jon and Tom had to say.
Jon: Tom, welcome to the webinar! When we decided to launch this series, RobotWorx was on the shortlist for companies I wanted to participate. I think we have some good questions lined up today, and let’s start Tom, with you telling the audience first a bit about yourself, and then about RobotWorx.
Tom: Thanks, Jon. I’m the Operations Manager at RobotWorx in Marion, Ohio. I have been working with robots for more than 20 years in the welding and fabricating industries. I graduated from Ferris State University’s Welding Engineering program and spent over ten years in the automotive sector with Cosma and Honda.
RobotWorx has been in business since 1992, we are one of the pioneers of the reconditioned robots sector, as well being systems integrators of new and reconditioned robots and certified integrators of ABB, Fanuc, KUKA, and Yaskawa Motoman. We were purchased in 2014 by SCOTT Automation, a 100-year-old automation company based in New Zealand. They are a global company with facilities in Europe, China, Australia, South America, and multiple sites in the USA. We also own the world-famous URL Robots.com
Jon: Awesome, thanks, Tom. That is a legendary URL and I want to get to that a little bit later. Also, a special shout-out to Ferris State University who recently signed on as an OCTOPUZ customer. A few things I want to touch on. You’ve been working with robots for over 20 years. What would you say are the major differences today in working with robots, versus 20 years ago?
Tom: Robots have come a long way in 20 years. Obviously, hardware has changed, just like the iPhone and PC, hardware keeps getting smaller in size, but larger in capacity and function. I worked with hydraulic robots for a short time, so the current generation of servo motors, is amazing to see how far they have come. Robots have a lot more application-specific capabilities that are more easily accessed compared to in the ’90s. Programing language has changed, with the capability increase, so has the need for more instructions. It can get overwhelming bouncing between say material handling robots, and welding robots.
Jon: In terms of colleges and universities, you are in close proximity to some of the best in the country when it comes to robotics. But, if you could change one thing about the typical robotics or fabrication programs, what would you change? What’s typically missing?
Tom: That’s a great question! I think in terms of the technical curriculum, we need to offer students more than just material handling classes. Unless you are attending a school for a specific major like Welding, you likely won’t have programed a welding robot. Schools churn out hundreds of “certified programmers” each year. Most of them have only programmed on material handling and briefly touched on vision.
Jon: Is RobotWorx all General Industry? What’s your perception of the General Industry today, versus say 10 years ago?
Tom: General industry is a big part of the RobotWorx business, however being located in central Ohio, we are central to many other sectors - manufacturing, automotive, food and beverage, and aerospace are just a few. The General Industry has grown in the last 10 years and continues to grow today. Historically industrial robots were almost exclusive to the automotive market. Now, general industry manufacturers are seeing the same operating benefits, automotive saw 20 to 30 years ago. It’s definitely not as mature a market as automotive and has room to continue to grow.
Jon: I believe there will be a day in the future, where the vast majority of manufacturing facilities have an industrial robot doing something like you would see with CNC machinery today. We have a long way to go, but it seems inevitable to me. From your perspective, is there anything critical that needs to change to make that happen? Cost of hardware or integration? Better ease of use? Better supporting technology like OLRP software, vision, etc.? Collaborative robots?
Tom: Ease of use is definitely going to need to improve. The industry has taken a silo approach to programming languages. In hindsight, that is probably been a hindrance to the growth of the market, but a benefit to keeping companies using one specific brand. If you look at CNC, everyone uses G-code/M-code across the industry. However, in the robot world, each manufacture has its own language. Just like CAD to path has improved the CNC programing, OLP will do the same as it continues to grow in use.
Jon: RobotWorx and OCTOPUZ have worked quite closely together for a couple of years now. Pre 2019, we knew of each other, but RobotWorx wasn’t promoting any agnostic OLRP products at that time. What prompted RobotWorx to finally invest in OCTOPUZ and OLRP?
Tom: I think I first met you guys around 2017. At the time we had the corporate direction to use another simulation software. The OLP market demand started to grow about that time and we started to get more requests for simplified ways beginners could program without extensive knowledge of robots, as well as manufacturers wanting to take advantage of their underutilized CAD operators. That’s really where this relationship started. As I mentioned, we integrate all four of the major brands of robots. Maintaining expensive software and keeping it up to date on the navigation of the multiple platforms, doesn’t make sense for us. From there Octopuz started to grow and innovate, it became obvious that you were achieving what was once thought of as the holy grail of robots in manufacturing.
Jon: From what I gather. Inbound leads are not a problem for RobotWorx, as you rep the best URL in the space (robots.com). So you talk to a lot of companies looking at robots. I’m curious about a few things. What’s the #1 misconception companies have when looking at bringing on their first-ever robot cell?
Tom: You can never have enough leads! I think the biggest misconception is the commitment it takes to keep and maintain a robotic system. The amount of ownership taken when implementing robots determines its success. You have to commit to training personnel in operations and programming, ensuring quality through regular inspections, and ensure maintenance is up to date, in order to get the best return on your investment. RobotWorx can help with all of these requirements.
Jon: What are you constantly having to educate the market on? What should companies know about robots and automation that they don’t know?
Tom: The market has become very educated. The complexity of programming is the biggest challenge we face with clients new to robotics, especially when they come from a CNC background. They don’t understand until they’ve had a pendant in their hand, that day to day interface is minimal; however there will be times when advanced knowledge will be required. That is something our service team can support.
Jon: When you talk to that company that is quite experienced with robots. Maybe they have a few cells, some of which are through other integrators. Why are they contacting RobotWorx now? What’s important to them that maybe wasn’t earlier on in their robot journey?
Tom: That is a good question. Many times, they are a client we have developed through our parts and service department. We have an exceptional service team that has the knowledge to solve the tough problems on equipment that many others may not want to support. Referrals are another key driver of winning new business. We have worked hard to ensure our clients feel their project is important. The general industry is huge, but the networks in particular segments are very well connected.
Jon: What kind of full-service solutions is the majority of clients looking for? Do they just want you to install the cell? Or are they looking for some sort of longer-term hand-holding?
Tom: Most first time buyers and smaller companies want a one-stop-shop. They will find a company they work well with and know they are getting the level of support they need. We offer service contracts with each system we sell and they can be customized to the customer’s needs. More experienced customers want a solution they can install on their floor and are pretty self-sufficient from there. They may or may not take us up on service contracts, depending on their situation.
Jon: There is a well-documented shortage of skilled labor in the trades. How are these companies who are doing the right thing by investing in automation, also handling the now question/problem of who will manage the robots?
Tom: Skilled labor is definitely something that is in high demand, many times it's internal advancement and training. For instance, the best robotic welding programmers usually have some sort of hands-on welding experience. They know and understand the fundamentals of welding and pick up the programming quickly. Tech schools are also a good resource for young talent. Here locally we hire many of our technicians straight out of our local high school technical programs. RAMTECH here in Ohio has been used as a national model for technical training at the high school level for many years. They not only train them on the technical aspects of the trades but also the professional skills required for interacting with coworkers and clients.
Jon: There are winners and losers with COVID. And some who are mostly unchanged. Where does RobotWorx sit? Is Automation a definite longer-term winner?
Tom: The automation industry still has legs. It’s still a growing market that isn’t totally saturated. The newly recognized need for social distancing and manpower agility will only help the market continue to grow and innovate. RobotWorx has always been a survivor. We have managed our way through multiple recessions in our 28-year history. We plan on being here for at least 28 more!
Jon: We hear prospective clients talk about their robot cells being underutilized. Sometimes a capacity %, or sometimes the cell is literally sitting in the corner not doing anything. At OCTOPUZ we may attribute this to the robot or teach pendant being too cumbersome to use, plus the lack of skilled labor in trades. What’s your take?
Tom: That’s definitely a challenge we hear a lot about. Being that we buy and sell reconditioned workcells. People will often call us looking to get some sort of return on robots and systems that are just collecting dust. It all goes back to the commitment required when bringing automation into your facility. You have to have properly trained staff, and be committed to keeping that equipment busy. Teach pendant programming can be very intimidating. Many times, we will hear of customers that have sent one employee to training, if that person moves on, it creates a vacuum where the company may not work to fill that cell with future work because of the lack of knowledge they have to keep it running. OCTOPUZ simplifies the complexity and makes it easier for customers to bring new products online quickly with minimal time. The OLP also speeds up the process of getting new products programmed and in production without shutting down a line for an extended amount of time. This means that a cell that is 50% utilized doesn’t have to incur downtime to existing production in order to increase utilization.
Jon: For those new to OLRP, who is the best candidate to be the OCTOPUZ user? The robot operator? The CAD/software savvy person? The welder/machinist? Why?
Tom: In my opinion, they all have a certain skill set that can only benefit the process. The robot programmer is going to be familiar with the real-world concepts and be able to apply them in the virtual. The CAD operator is going to be super-efficient at navigating the virtual and understands the products. As I mentioned before the welder and machinist is going to have that practical experience to understand the concepts that are specific to that application, whether its torch angles travel speeds, feed rates, or depth of cut they will know what works in the real world and be able to apply it in the virtual.
Jon: What advice do you give to manufacturers considering Offline Robot Programming?
Tom: Taking on OLP is like any project, you need to have a plan. Understand who you are going to have performing OLP initially, and get them in on the project. Understand your needs - are you looking for programing simplicity, quickness of implementation, or ease of software use, etc.? Understand the options and demo each solution in order to better understand what you are buying. Get recommendations and referrals. We have found many customers have chosen a supplier based on a demo that appeared simple, and later are required to purchase second software to actually do what they need. They end up with double the investment because they didn’t treat it as a project.