Robotics have been a mainstay of large-scale manufacturing for years. From automotive assembly lines to welding, painting, assembly, printed circuit boards, packaging and labeling, there are now millions of robots deployed in industrial applications. But the high cost of entry and technical complexity of robotic programming meant that the technology could only be harnessed by large enterprises or those operating with high margins.
All this is changing, however, due to new tax incentives as well as the latest automation software that simplifies robotic operation. Operators of factory systems, computer numerical control (CNC) equipment and other industrial systems can now run robots from the same interface. This minimizes the need for specialized robotic programming and opens the door to the deployment of robotics across an even larger sphere.
Welcome Tax Break
Industrial robots are automated machines that are programmable and capable of movement in at least two axes. The more advanced types can operate on six axes. Some are deployed to carry out one task over and over with a high degree of accuracy and speed. Others are programmed to carry out complex tasks such as coating or machining of complex components.
This level of equipment sophistication, though, was not something found in your local machine shop or factory. Even those that could afford it might have only a few robots operating. But the high cost of robotics, the expense of highly trained support personnel, and a sluggish economy since the 2008 recession, meant that many of those that had invested in robotics were either hanging onto aging equipment or were putting off further investment to a later date.
That changed at the start of 2018, however, with the passing of new tax incentives geared toward boosting the U.S. commercial sector. These new tax rules are encouraging many to rethink their spending strategies by adding robotics, automation and digitalization as well as modernizing their equipment. This is being heralded by some factory owners as an opportunity to boost productivity in a tight labor market.
The old rules allowed companies to write off a small portion of the cost of industrial equipment each year. By shifting the tax code to enable them to immediately deduct the entire cost of equipment purchases, the incentive is there to buy robots and replace outdated machinery. Many are doing so. Capital spending on manufacturing equipment is predicted to surge by 12% per year due to the new legislation, according to the Association for Manufacturing Technology.
The forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers concurs. It estimates the new tax law could add 5% to business spending on equipment nationally by 2024 and boost manufacturing production by an additional 1.25%. This is a welcome break to a U.S. manufacturing sector that has been having a tough time for several decades.
But tax breaks aren’t the only factor adding fuel to the engine of U.S. industry. The latest factory automation technology means that those purchasing robotics and other manufacturing equipment can gain far more bang for their buck.
In the past, two separate teams were needed for robotics and factory automation. Specialist robotic technicians were required to deal with the complex kinematics of multi-axis robots, which have their own programing language. In a tight labor market, these resources were hard to come by. Similarly, trained automation system engineers were needed to program and manage programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and shop floor systems. Between the two, a major gap existed.
Robotic technicians and automation engineers had to work closely together to integrate their shop floor activities as they use completely different programming languages. An I/O station would have to be established within the automation system to exchange data to facilitate the use of the robots in mechanical and plant engineering. This consumed time and expense and limited the level of integration possible. It discouraged some from deploying robots to increase the efficiency of their operations.
However, a new level of integration is now possible that makes it far simpler to operate robots on the factory floor. Robot manufacturer Kuka has developed an integration solution that enables sequence programming and operation of the robot in the PLC. Known as PLC mxAutomation (mxA), the robot’s sequence of actions can be programmed with the mxAutomation Function Block library using the Siemens SIMATIC Controllers from within the Siemens TIA Portal programming environment. The interface to SIMATIC also enables easy integration of robot operations into the existing Human Machine Interface (HMI) with the benefits of the System diagnostic inherent in the Portal system architecture. The mxA library contains a server program for the KR C4 robot control system. The S7 programmer can access a block for each motion of the robot. The blocks are based on the PLC open standard, so specialist knowledge is not required for the robot’s programming tools. The user can define the robot’s motions either offline in TIA Portal or online to connect directly to the robot.
Using robots in combination with a production machine provides manufacturers with greater flexibility and higher efficiency. By combining robot operation and sequence programming from within the PLC, many benefits can be realized:
- A significant decrease in engineering time
- A major savings in configuration costs
- Streamlined programming
- Far fewer software packages needed to train technicians
- Faster plant commissioning
Plant commissioning, including of robots, can be carried out by a specialist in a familiar automation environment. There is, therefore, great potential for cost optimization throughout the entire lifecycle, from programming to operation and maintenance. In addition, virtual commissioning allows the line builder and end users to simulate the process before the line has been built. This enables them to identify any deficiencies before spending the time and money to build a machine.
For more information on how TIA Portal helps reduce cost and engineering time by delivering a high level of integration, and how it integrated with Kuka mxA, visit: https://www.siemens.com/global/en/home/products/automation/industry-software/automation-software/tia-portal.htmlHave an Inquiry for Siemens about this article? Click Here >>