Are Cobots Worth the Cost?

The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) reports that the collaborative robot market is growing quickly. Advances in robotic manufacturing technology are enabling robot workers to be integrated into the labor force with a wide range of new tasks and applications, increasing productivity and efficiency. The robots themselves are relatively inexpensive, making them a more viable solution for small and medium businesses.

However, the upfront costs savings might not make up for the loss of production, with full-scale industrial robots being at least three times faster than cobots. On the other hand, the larger robots do take up more room, which can be a disadvantage in a smaller space.

So it is important to understand your robotic system needs and whether a collaborative robot setup is truly the best fit for your company. Often, it makes more sense to choose a cobot when there is a specific need, such as a setup where a robot fills a container, and a person sitting next to it puts the lid on. That could also be done in a non-collaborative setting, but it would have to pass through a fence, take longer, and use up more floor space.

MJ Engineering can collaborate with you on your collaborative robot needs and make the recommendation that is the best fit for your company, budget, and space.

Robots Are Here to Enhance—Not Replace—Your Jobs

Quality control, improved efficiency, and increased throughput are all good reasons for companies to automate their processes. Look at MJ Engineering’s Oral Syringe Filling Machine, for example. Automation takes over repetitive, mundane, or dangerous tasks (thereby increasing precision and consistency), while freeing its human counterparts to do safer or more fulfilling jobs.

Perhaps you have been considering bringing more automation—robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), or autonomous processes—into your manufacturing production, but you are finding resistance with your employees. Or maybe you’ve seen the recent statistics of robotics in the workplace, the typical rant being something about robots replacing good workers. And, depending on whom you talk to, you’ll find advocates for both sides of this conversation.

What do we, as automation experts, think? That doomsaying needs to stop.

Automation is ambivalent

The first thing to remember when dealing with any automated process is that it does not think for itself—yet. Therefore, the AI you might be adding to machines in your production processes to “think” like a human or even mimic human actions can only do what it has been programmed to do by a human. And most manufacturers have no interest in programming an uprising. The point is that automation isn’t an evil waiting to be unleashed on our economy; it’s a tool just like any other in getting things made and inspected more efficiently.

“Robotic integration is not about reducing head count; it’s about repurposing your head count,” says MJ Engineering President Richard Wand. “And being able to produce more with the same number of people.”

Often, as is the case with many of our customers, robots and automation are a welcome addition to a weary and beleaguered team. In fact, once it is up-and-running, employees often rave about the enhancements brought about by automation. Fears of job loss or technological overthrow are long gone within the first few weeks of installation.

On the website “Save Your Factory,” MJ Engineering robotics supplier FANUC discusses how robots allow businesses to remain competitive without offshoring.

The truth about automation is in the potential

Since the Industrial Revolution began more than 250 years ago, we have been putting tools to work for us in assembly processes—and we’ve come a long way since the Luddites destroyed machinery in the textile industry that they believed was threatening their jobs. These days, the term “Luddite” is used to describe anyone who is opposed to increased industrialization or new technology—and it is typically not a compliment.

Despite all of the technological advances since the first Industrial Revolution, more people are working than ever before. Assembly lines have become more efficient and more automated. Just think injection machines, CNC routers, and even conveyor belts, at their core, are all automated systems. And what have those automations brought us? The Industrial Age, mass manufacturing, and nearly everything you use every day. But, most importantly, it has brought us to a greater level of potential than ever before in human history. Automation enhances human potential.

The way this plays out on an assembly line, for instance, is best represented by automation working side-by-side with humans. The robot or automation handles the processes it is best suited for, and the person does the rest. This system takes physical strain off the worker while enabling that worker to handle the process they are given with more focus, maximizing their potential for output.

The future is now

Another advantage of adding automation to your manufacturing process, which you might not have considered, is that of hiring more specialized staff. If anything, adding a robot will increase the number of higher-level jobs within your company. Robot mechanics, automation experts, and CNC programmers are some of the positions for which you will likely be hiring, once your automation has been installed.

This idea may seem daunting now, but keep in mind the metrics of adding automation. Precision, quality, efficiency, output quantities, safety, and order fulfillment (all profitable elements of your business) increase almost exponentially with the appropriate addition of automation—which brings us to the caveat.

Robots are brutally honest

Just because robots will make your production line faster, better, and safer, while adding higher-level jobs and freeing up employees to do other work, it does not mean you should just slap any old robot onto your line. A thoughtful, intentional evaluation of your process is absolutely necessary before adding automation. And MJ Engineering is the perfect partner to help you create a system or line that incorporates robotics and automation. If the right machine does not already exist, MJ Engineering can custom-design it to suit your company’s needs.

The reason you need to put time and thought into your automation is two-fold: first and most obviously, it costs money to set up automation. It’s an investment you will see repaid in dividends, but a hefty sum nonetheless. Second, whatever problems you have in your current process—no matter where in relation to the automation they exist—can be exacerbated by adding automation. So, you want to get it right. In fact, if you struggle with your internal process, robotics can help because they expose weaknesses in your upstream process. Robotics perform the same exact action over and over again, so any variance will stand out.

This is a good thing when dealing with manufacturing. And it makes sense, because robots enhance potential. No other investment will give you the guaranteed results time and time again as adding automation. But you will want to think of how to integrate the automation as an augmentation of the process and people you currently have—not as a replacement. Only then will your addition be met with enthusiasm from everyone in your company, and your robots will automatically be welcomed with open arms.

Creating Technology Through Design Innovation

By MJ Engineering & Consulting Inc.

MJ Engineering’s CAD software vendor, Computer-Aided Technology Inc. (CATI), knows we do amazing things with their product.

So, they asked company president, Richard Wand, to share his expertise about design innovation on video. The result is a fast-paced vignette where Richard chats about the potential that exists within technology.

The video got us thinking about some other aspects of technology as well…

Technology is in the eye of the beholder

The word technology is often tossed into conversations that deal with anything from smartphones to spaceships, but when it comes to design innovation, technology can be harnessed to complete tasks on a daily basis in new and different ways. For this reason, what technology means can vary for whoever is using it at the time. “If you think about old-school typewriters,” says Wand, “technology was a ribbon that had the ink on the top half and the eraser on the bottom.”

We’ve come a long way since then, but it underlies the point that yesterday’s cutting edge could be today’s ho-hum. And today’s probably could have been yesterday’s impossible. Wand cites, for example, “Vision systems for quality control have different capabilities today than they did a year ago. One of our strengths is being able to review those new technologies, understand how they work, and incorporate them into customer equipment to do things that were unheard of two or three years ago.”

At MJ Engineering, we are not afraid to try new things. However, we approach this potential power with trepidation, so we don’t overstep our bounds. Whether new training classes, new hardware, new robots, or anything that we implement in our business, we tread carefully, because we are responsible for that technology working properly.

But when we take tech by the reigns, some really incredible things can happen. Our company uses design innovation to create cutting-edge hardware and software, advanced FEM evaluations, and combine common off-the-shelf (COTS) materials with new technology for cost-effective solutions. In our hands, design innovation is the magic we use to make things happen. By understanding how—and when—to integrate technology in the equipment and processes we help improve, we keep this powerful magic in check.

Depending on the application, MJ Engineering can use technology to automate a manufacturing process, integrate robotics into a line to work seamlessly with human counterparts, or even add high-resolution optics for part evaluation that no one has seen before. All of this adds up to creating even more technology for other people to use.

The role of design innovation and technology

Of course, this technology doesn’t just show up. It isn’t a case of throwing a computer into the mix to see what happens. There has to be a plan. A design, as the term gives it, to the innovation. And it’s through the application of design innovation that we can make technology do what we want.

To put this in perspective: with the right application of design innovation, we can improve automation equipment to do whatever our clients ask (within reason, of course). And embracing design innovation enables us to stay ahead of the competition in the industry. Design innovation also crosses language and cultural boundaries for international collaboration. Without design innovation, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.

Applying design innovation in today’s market

As technology becomes commonplace—a computer or tablet in every home—the ability to innovate seemingly diminishes. But with design innovation backing technology in the realm of manufacturing and part sorting, there is still much to be discovered. New processes are being created every day that will require design innovation. It’s in this blue-sky environment that MJ Engineering exists—and excels.

Accomplishing this kind of innovation is not a linear path. The direction our design takes can sometimes run back on itself through iterations, split into parallel solutions, and even slam into dead-ends when the technology needed to accomplish the next step hasn’t been invented yet. All this convolution is not for the faint of heart.

Our ability to adapt to new challenges is what makes design innovation so valuable to us. Without this flexibility, the unknown would put us out of business. However, as we face the void where technology has yet to go—and push against it with design innovation—we forge a path for manufacturers to follow, anticipating technology will eventually catch up.

2018 Winter Newsletter

Meet the Latest Machines from MJ Engineering!

MJ Engineering recently completed two custom-designed machines for clients in the medical and automotive industries that save time, improve quality and accuracy, and reduce waste.

The syringe filling machine (right) can simultaneously fill four oral syringes (up to 20mL) with liquid medicines of varying viscosities at a pace more than double that of the client’s best operator. The machine eliminates air bubbles and has programmable fill levels, leading to accurate measurements of medicine every time. The oral syringe filler uses safety light curtains, and it has a foot pedal for handsfree operation, as well as stainless steel and aluminum parts for easy cleaning.

MJ Engineering’s battery bar verification machine inspects vehicle battery bars and rejects the ones that do not meet the part’s height, form, or thread criterion. The three-part process uses a combination of technologies: a height gage, a backlit conveyor belt that moves the part past two high-resolution Cognex cameras, and a New Vista thread verification system. With this machine, the client can inspect 100% of the battery bars more quickly, accurately, and objectively than a human operator.

Exciting New Products and Technology on Display

An abundance of exciting new products and technologies were on display at three well-attended manufacturing and automation shows held in the Midwest last fall.

At the Advanced Manufacturing & Technology Show, in Dayton, Ohio, Fortech, LLC, demonstrated new software that enables users to monitor equipment downtime. The system uses different input methods, including PLC error messages, other downtime reporting systems, and a unique video stream analyzing option (see the next article for more details).

At the Assembly Show in Chicago, Schunk displayed a multitude of pneumatic and electric grippers. Some of the newer grippers have a specialized design to enable them to integrate with today’s collaborative robots, including ones made by Fanuc, Kuka, and Universal.

The Fabtech show, also in Chicago, was by far the largest, with hundreds of companies offering equipment for cutting, bending, welding, and anything related to metal fabrication. Fanuc showed off its new seven-axis robot, which is designed to enable the robot to fit into tight and awkward spaces. The seventh axis is located between what would be the second and third axis on a traditional five-axis robot.

To learn about other new offerings in the automation and manufacturing world, and to get to know our current and potential customers’ products, it is well worth your time to attend these types of events.

Fortech Manufacturing Execution System (MES)

MJ Engineering recently investigated the capabilities of the new Fortech MES downtime tracking system. It is primarily a downtime viewing tool, but its capabilities extend beyond those of similar programs. This software is a high-visibility and diagnostic application that provides a micro and macro view of the manufacturing plant. It tracks downtime in two ways:

1. The software pulls information from the system’s PLC or an existing downtime tracking software. The MES system then displays this information on a graphical interface for viewing in real time. The A1Webcams camera system can be added to further track system performance, because it is integrated with a graphic display that can play video from any recorded event. The conditions displayed are: normal running, blocked, starved, and failure. When using the software, specific events can be selected, which will automatically pull the video from a DVR recording.

2. Data can be collected via live video stream. The system analyzes the live stream for abnormal movement. Initially, the normal movement is programmed, so the system will recognize any abnormal condition, including starved or blocked conveyors or dropped parts. It can even help with tracking employee safety.

To learn more about this system, please reach out to