For as Little $20,000, Machines Handle the Tedious—With No Lunch Breaks; 'Fred, Hand Me That Wrench'
Photo By Taylor Glascock, WSJ
By Timothy Aeppel
SolidarityEconomy.net via The Wall Street Journal
Sept. 17, 2014 - Robots aren't just for the big guys anymore.
A new breed of so-called collaborative machines—designed to work alongside people in close settings—is changing the way some of America's smaller manufacturers do their jobs.
The machines, priced as low as $20,000, provide such companies—small jewelry makers and toy makers among them—with new incentives to automate to increase overall productivity and lower labor costs.
At Panek Precision Inc., a Northbrook, Ill., machine shop, 21 shiny new robots hum as they place metal parts into cutting machines and remove the parts after they are done. It's a tedious and oily task once handled by machine operators who earn about $16.50 an hour.
One new robot doubled the output from a machine that was previously operated by a worker "because robots work overnight and don't take lunch breaks and they just keep going," says Gregg Panek, the company's president. In some cases, the robots, which are single articulated arms, can even hold a part while it's getting cut since there is no danger of injury.
Robots have been on factory floors for decades. But they were mostly big machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be caged off to keep them from smashing into humans. Such machines could only do one thing over and over, albeit extremely fast and precisely. As a result, they were neither affordable nor practical for small businesses.
Collaborative robots can be set to do one task one day—such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box—and a different task the next.
Some are mobile and able to range freely inside a factory. The use of advanced sensors means they stop or reposition themselves when a person gets in their way, solving a safety issue that long kept robots out of smaller factories.(more...)