See previous: How To Pitch Your Robot Project
You've worked hard to get your robot application approved and are ready to kick the project off. There are a couple routes that are available to take to get to our end goal of a fully functioning robot system on the floor. First, you could try and complete the job internally. To have this make sense, your company would need to have engineering resources that are available to be dedicated to the design, procurement, programming, build, and support of the equipment. Additionally, they would need to be experienced in the multiple fields required of implementing a successful robotic automation system. Disciplines such as robot programming, plc programming, machine vision, and industrial safety could need to be unified and working together in order to perform a manufacturing task properly. Additionally, one mistake along the way could cause weeks of delays. It is because of this that most companies choose to partner with a system integrator to assure the system performs at the highest level.
Simply put, robot integrators are built to go through the project process in a robust and efficient manner. The churn of implementing robot after robot yields a skillset and knowledge base not otherwise possible. However, the abilities of system integrators can vary widely. How can you be sure you're choosing the right partner? Are there any questions that can make the selection process go more smoothly? Absolutely.
Initial Quote Process
As you engage with an integrator to gain insight into how they would purpose a manufacturing solution, take note of the detail in their quotation. If an integrator is asking for more detail on how you currently run the process, take this as a good sign. Even if the application seems straightforward to you, a good integrator knows that defining the constraints of a system as early as possible will save money and lead to less headaches down the road.
Similar Project References
It is okay to ask for example documentation from an integrator of work they have performed that was similar to the application being currently explored. However non-disclosure agreements do exist and can prevent the exposure of materials to outside parties. If the integrator can share documentation of something similar, don't judge too harshly if the process or equipment doesn't match yours exactly. It is a big manufacturing world out there and what is important is that the integrator can adapt to your requirements easily.
Take a look at the major requirements of your system and compare. Was the material handling solution robust? Did the reference system communicate to third party equipment? If yes, they could likely do it again with yours.
Another way to improve confidence in an integrator's solution is to ask for a feasibility study. Studies can take a variety of forms and pricing can vary depending on the complexity of what needs to be tested, but it can be time well spent to reduce the risk and vet out a solution before committing to the entire project.
Is Safety Being Addressed?
In 2014 the Robotics Industries Association released a report that made risk assessment reports mandatory for all new robot cells. (Yes, that includes collaborative robot applications.) So if you've used an integrator for a robot system after 2014 and you're not able to pull a risk assessment report on your robot right now, you're missing a key piece of safety documentation that is required by the RIA standard. Further updates since then have added to the safety guidelines that robot systems must adhere to.
Ask your integrator about their familiarity with the latest robot safety standards. As we've discussed in another article there is a clear positive correlation between improved safety and better productivity.
What Are The Long Term Support Options?
A good system integrator should function as a long term partner and have options available to you after the system has been up and running. Having your integrator available to you for things such as unexpected issues, scheduled improvements, or program changes will proved valuable as time passes.
Don't Judge On Price Alone
Certainly a less expensive solution has its merit; but what is being foregone to get to this price? Reduced upfront cost rarely makes up for any sacrifice to output speed, downtime, quality, or any one of the variety of manufacturing metrics that ultimately determine a system's return on investment. It's also not a good use of your manufacturing talent to be consistently on the phone with the integrator or a component manufacturer trying to work out bugs. So something might be cheap up front but it may just be deferring your costs until later.
Moving Forward With An Integrator
In order for a robot integrator to be most effective at their job they need to know as much as possible about how the system will need behave once its fully operational. Take time to list all of the system inputs and outputs as well as define a product matrix of the types of product the system will be handling. Could this change in the future? Let the integrator know.
From an operational standpoint, work to write down your ideal sequence of operations with any interrupts that might need to be planned for. Nobody knows your manufacturing processes like you do so be safe and take nothing as assumed.