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B&R's Machine-Centric Robotics solution is shaking up the automation market. For the first time ever, OEMs have a one-stop shop for machine automation and robotics. But what do they actually stand to gain from integrating robots into their machines? We sat down with robotics specialist Sebastian Brandstetter to find out.

Sebastian Brandstetter, Product Manager - Integrated Robotics, B&R

Mr. Brandstetter, what added value can an OEM expect to gain from integrating robots into their machines?

Brandstetter: I see three main advantages. First, robots make machines more flexible. Second, a robot can often be the simplest way to accomplish certain tasks. Third, robots can do work that would be too hazardous, strenuous or monotonous for human laborers.

Do modern machines still require manual human intervention?

Brandstetter: The amount of automation in manufacturing has clearly grown dramatically over the past three decades. Yet, there are still plenty of machines and plants where human workers are required for certain steps in the process. Imagine a sheet metal bending machine, for example: you still see workers inserting the sheets into the brake and turning them as needed until all the bends have been made. It's a very demanding job, and one that is increasingly hard to find qualified workers to perform.

… which makes it a perfect candidate for robots.

Brandstetter: Exactly right. But not only that: In addition to inserting the sheets, the robot can also serve as an additional motion control axis in the bending process. Not to mention the fact that a fully automated bending machine can run 24 hours a day.

Could you not build a machine like that with a conventional robotics solution?

Brandstetter: It's not that simple. The movements of the bending machine and the movements of the robot are tightly intertwined. To get quality bending results, the axes need to be exchanging data constantly. The only real way to do that is to have the robotics application as an integral part of the machine – so you have only one controller and only one control application.

You mentioned earlier that robots make machines more flexible. Could you explain how they do that?

Brandstetter: If you look at a typical production machine, it's designed to create a specific product, or even a specific model of a specific product. Sometimes there are complex mechanical systems in place to do things like move products from one level of the machine to the next. If anything about the product changes – its size, its shape or its weight – these systems all need to be adjusted, replaced or even completely redesigned. But a robot doesn't care about all that. It just quickly recalculates its path and is ready to go.

It almost sounds like robots would make any machine more productive.

Brandstetter: I wouldn't take it quite that far. But, I do think an investment in robotics pays off in many more cases than people expect. That includes cases where operator safety is at stake.

How so?

Brandstetter: Think about something with a lot of fast-moving parts, like a bottling line. Any bottles that are defective or have fallen over need to be removed from the line very quickly. If you want to have a human operator do that, you have to slow the line down to a safe speed so they can open the safety gate. But if you have a robot do it, the machine can continue along uninterrupted at full speed.

But when you start adding robots, don't the machines get bigger?

Brandstetter: Quite the opposite, in fact. Integrated robots actually reduce a machine's footprint by performing manipulations that would otherwise require complex – and therefore large – mechanical systems. What's more, B&R's integrated solution also does away with the dedicated robotics control cabinet, and the robots can be installed horizontally or upside down. And for machine builders who combine robotics with an intelligent track system, there is even greater potential for optimization.

How did that happen?

Brandstetter: The shuttles on the track system can each be controlled independently and synchronized to the movement of the robot with microsecond precision. Processing steps can be performed while the shuttles are in motion and adapted for different products without any changes to the hardware. You get more output from a machine that takes up less floorspace.

What does that mean for the machine builder?

Brandstetter: They can offer their customers a whole new breed of machine: a machine that adapts automatically to new products – even ones that didn't exist when the machine was first built. They can deliver on one of the most pressing consumer expectations: individualized products at mass production prices.

Thank you for the interview!

Robot and machine become one

B&R is the world's only single-source supplier of controls and robotics. Robots from its parent company ABB are fully integrated in the B&R automation system. Customers benefit from unprecedented precision in synchronization between robotics and machine control. They need only one controller and one engineering system for development, diagnostics and maintenance.

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