Yaskawa Motoman pushes the edge of robotics field

Yaskawa Motoman’s first robot remains on display in its manufacturing headquarters in Miamisburg, just outside the demo lab showing some of the automated work cells being sold today.

That Motoman L10 — created in 1977, featuring five axes and a maximum workload of about 22 pounds — is a reminder of how far industrial robots have come.

Thanks to developments in technology over the years, the company’s wide variety of robot systems now can manage a payload of up to 1,763 pounds, using up to 15 axes.

“Robotic systems have evolved quite a bit,” said Yaskawa Motoman director of thermal business development Zane Michael, who has been with the company 34 years, dating back to employment with former joint partner Hobart Brothers Co. “With better technology, the costs to produce robots have gone way down, and so it is more cost effective to implement a robotic system. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time. It’s pretty amazing.”

Yaskawa Motoman, a leading robotics company previously known as Motoman Inc., was formally incorporated in 1989 as a 50/50 joint venture between Hobart Brothers Company and Yaskawa Electric America. Hobart Brothers sold its shares to Yaskawa in 1994.

The company was launched with 59 employees, but that number has grown to almost 600 today, with 350 of those employees based in its Miamisburg headquarters, according to marketing communications specialist Jennifer Katchmar. Motoman has continued to expand its operations and product offerings and now has 10 facilities throughout the Americas and over 35,000 robots installed, as of a press release from August 2014.

“Our purpose here is to design work cells that we ship to our customers to use in production,” Michael said, noting the robots are built in Japan but customized in Miamisburg. “We are here to help our customers solve a production issue they have.”

Michael said the biggest differences in today’s robots, compared to the 1980s, are found in the costs, type of application, risk factor, size, capability and lead time for placement into production.

Automation typically used to be left for “the dull, the dirty and the dangerous jobs,” Michael said, but whereas there were few jobs early robots could do, now there is almost an unlimited range of applications, including art welding, spot welding, assembly, painting, material removal, palletizing and packaging. An article on Robotics Technology Trends, which Michael cited from www.automation.com, said a couple decades ago 90 percent of robots were used in car manufacturing, typically on assembly lines doing a variety of repetitive tasks. Today only 50 percent are in automobile plats with the other half spread among other factories, labs, warehouses, energy plants, hospitals and many other industries.

Motoman is one of the leaders in the welding market, Michael said, so many products are tailored toward welding application.

“The American Welding society has talked about the shortage of welders being approximately 250,000 welders short today in the U.S., so a common problem my customers tell me is they cannot hire or retain skilled welders,” Michael said. “It’s hot and dirty, so they are looking to automate their welding production, and that’s where we can help them.”

Robotic systems also used to be big and bulky, chewing up a lot more floor space, and it took more than 25 weeks usually to get a system into place. Now, the lead time usually is less than 10 weeks, Michael said.

Artificial intelligence has also taken robotic automation to a whole new level the last couple decades.

“Robots don’t have eyes, so in the 80s, you had to program the task and that’s exactly what it did, no more, no less,” Michael said. “Today, you can put vision on the robot, with cameras, and you can give it information about the application and the robot can make decisions.”

Michael said a vision system in the early ’80s cost over $900,000. In 1998, it was $40,000, and now it can be purchased for about $2,000.

With the increasing power of the microprocessor and artificial intelligence techniques, robots also have increased their potential as flexible automation tools. They no longer have to be bolted to the floor, and the operators can now work alongside the robots, thanks to new safety standards set forth by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Robotic Industries Association. Until 2012, robots were in cages and separated from human interaction, according to Michael.

“I can have the robot assisting the operator in heavy lifting, because they can share the same workspace,” Michael said. “That is new in the industry, and there is a lot of activity on robotic collaborative operation.”

The risk to implement a robot system today is much lower, as well, since the engineering community has become better trained as robotics classes are commonplace in schools and colleges now.

Michael said Motoman offers the largest training center in the industry to help customers teach employees how to program and use the work cells they’ve purchased. The Motoman Technical Education Center (MTEC) at headquarters employs eight full-time instructors and over 75 robots dedicated to training. Training sessions come with purchase of the product.

Motoman also has a hand in helping develop the next generation of students looking at careers in technology, and specifically the robotics industry.

The company participates in national Robotics Week, where local schools are able to come in and learn about what opportunities might be ahead. There also are opportunities each month, depending on staff availability, for schools and other groups to visit for a tour of the demo lab, Katchmar said.

Motoman also sells STEM (Science, Techology, Engineering and Math) education work cells to area schools, and within the last six months, the company created a partnership with Sinclair Community College geared around work-force development and providing equipment at the college.

“The education for our work force in the last 10 years has really turned around,” Michael said. “Prior to that, it was limited. Today, colleges and high schools have robotic programs helping gear the students, whether they want to become an electrical engineer or some other industry, they are understanding how robots are applied.”