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2018 will be the year of robotics in print: Fujifilm

Tuesday, 30 January 2018
By Andy McCourt

The term ‘robotics’ conjours up various ideas of machines replacing humans for repetitive tasks. The automotive manufacturing industry has used industrial robots for many years, beginning with spot-welding robots at General Motors in 1961.The ensuing years saw the ‘arms’ become more versatile with increased movement and dexterity but it was the introduction of sensors, camera vision and integrated circuits that enabled industrial robots to really take off.

By the 1980s, industrial robots were a multi-billion dollar industry, with over half of production going into the automotive manufacturing industry. With China’s car manufacturing increasing exponentially, companies such as Great Wall Motors were able to build new production lines that were robotic from scratch. One such line uses 27 ABB robots working collaboratively, with ABB IRB7600s placing panels exactly in the right position and then passing instructions to ABB IRB6640 welding robots for the spot-welding. In such an automated line, over 4,000 welds are made precisely on a car body in only 86 seconds.

Paint robots are also used, removing humans from the toxic atmosphere of spray booths and reducing waste by precise metering of paint flow. While automotive is still the highest user of robots, other industries are adopting them, often in a human-machine collaborative environment.

The medical industry is one such, with ‘Da Vinci’ robots being used by surgeons to perform minimally-invasive surgeries such as prostatectomies. Pipette robots are often seen in television reports of medical research, filling vials with liquids for testing of pharmaceuticals. Military use of robots and allied technologies such as drones are having a major impact on the way that conflicts are conducted.

Manufacturing is a natural co-adopter of robotics along with automotive. Again, it is the robotisation of repetitive or dangerous tasks that have first attracted attention.

The ABB robotic arm positions another sheet on the bed of an Inca Onset X3.

Robotics in wide format

Moving on to wide format production, robotics are at their best when automating repetitive functions. The reliability and accuracy of ‘robotised’ functions far exceed human error-prone manual handling. Nowhere is this more obvious than the loading and unloading of large sheets on the faster breed of flatbed UV printers, such as the Inca Onset X-series from Fujifilm. Handling boards and sheets can be unwieldy at up to 3.22 x 1.6 metres and, particularly for a long run of say 1,000 sheets. Sheets and boards can be damaged by inappropriate storage and handling. The OH&S implications for workers tasked with manually loading and off-loading them are also significant.

Industrial robotic handling can also solve the problem of heavier, thicker sheet handling. Materials such as ACM, acrylics, wood, MDF and even door panels still have to be loaded and unloaded manually with basic flatbed automation geared to thin sheets, but robot-automation can handle the heavier materials.

It is for these reasons that many of Fujifilm’s Inca Onset installations are with half or three-quarter automation; typically from Hostert or Inca, where sheets are automatically unloaded from the imaging bed and stacked on pallets. But now it can go a whole lot further. Partnering with ABB Robotics, Fujifilm and Inca are able to make high-production wide format an automated, safer and more cost-effective process, enabling previous press operators to focus on more enjoyable and higher-skill tasks.

Mike Wilson, sales & marketing executive with ABB Robotics notes: “Look at the types of jobs that robots are taking over. Many of the roles that are being automated are arduous, repetitive and physically demanding. Is it sensible in this day and age for people to be deployed in such tasks, especially where training or apprenticeship programmes exist that could help them to be put to better use?”

Inca Onset X3 in unattended production mode with ABB robot sheet positioning, take-off and stacking – at 900 square metres per hour.

Robots create new jobs

Some critics of robotic automation cite job losses as detrimental to its implementation. It’s more a case of job transfer as the evidence is that other jobs are created in managing the greater productivity. Where manual jobs are genuinely lost, re-training and courses are there to re-skill the employees into more future-proof enterprise. The transport industry is far bigger today that it was in the days of the stagecoach, and employs millions more people.

For high-productivity flatbed board printing, the automation of loading (from short or long edge of sheet), registration and offloading & stacking can enable a single operator to be highly productive, having only to deliver palletised stacks of boards to the ‘on’ robot and take away printed pallets from the ‘off’ robot. The speed and media change-over benefits add to productivity – with attendant cost-savings. Ink refills might be necessary but with the high-capacity ink tanks of the X-series, these can be planned in to downtimes, or filled ‘on the fly’ during printing.

One significant benefit of an Inca/ABB robotised flatbed line is that, if a proof sheet needs to be pulled from the print run, the robot can be instructed to deliver it to the operator rather than the delivery stack: “Here’s the proof you asked for Sir!” Similarily, the ABB robotic arm can place one, two, three or four sheets on the Inca Onset vacuum table from a single feed stack, to be printed and then delivered to a single pallet stack.

ABB robots have outstanding position repeatability of ± 0.1mm, with excellent path accuracy, thereby permitting accurate and repeatable sheet loading on the vacuum table. Images are consistently printed in the same position on the substrate, making post-print finishing easier and more efficient. Unloading does not have to be solely to a stacked pallet – optional features include unloading to inspection tables, cutting tables or to stacks on a conveyor belt, enabling faster, automated finishing processes within established workflows. Taller stacks can be recessed for easier handling.

Robots are often thought of as Star Wars C3PO or R2D2 types emulating human behaviour. In reality, the vast majority of the world’s robots used in manufacturing are ‘arm-types.’ The effectiveness of ABB’s robotic automation can best be appreciated by viewing this video:

 

Of course, with any machinery operation, safety is a primary concern. ABB and Inca have ensured the highest levels of safety guarding that doesn’t get in the way of productivity. Measures include load and unload area light curtains, programmable laser scanning system, protective hand guarding and proximity sensors that halt printing should someone stray into the danger zone. ABB has also introduced the YuMi range collaborative or ‘buddy’ robots that are designed to work alongside humans and ensure their safety. Advanced ABB Ability programming means that complex tasks – even solving Rubik’s cube or making sushi – can be keyed into the instructions.

It’s all in the MIS and workflow

Without clear instructions, even human workers might stand idle and non-productive. It’s the same with robotic automation. Just as the automated car, medical and manufacturing production lines mentioned at the beginning require a constant stream of data to produce press-ready plates in the right order for each and every job; so an Inca Onset X3 with ABB robotics flourishes on a data-driven workflow. Job queuing for size, sheet type, print run and finishing is the nutrition that keeps robots well fed and happy. This is also available from Fujifilm via XMF, Caldera or ColorGate software.

That and maybe a little oil!

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