The future is now for robotics in the shop

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Two years ago, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory announced the creation of AutoSaw that uses a modified Roomba vacuum with a jigsaw to cut plywood and two Kuka robotic arms (youBots) to lift boards, place them on a miter saw and make cuts. Then we learned about Spatial Timber Assemblies, an innovative robotic prefabrication process for timber frame modules developed by the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research.

We’re seeing an evolution of robotics from theory to practice that seems to be following a route similar to that taken over the past three decades by the wood industry in its adoption of CNC technology.

Robots in the cabinet spray booth and assembly line have already learned much from automotive manufacturing, and they are also being developed specifically for the wood industry to handle sheet stock, molding, casework and millwork components. One of the remarkable aspects of the technology is that it doesn’t always come from a large corporate background. There are a lot of players that include visionary small companies, schools, online groups and hands-on craftsmen. Between them they are beginning to deliver simple, inexpensive solutions for small shops, and larger more complex systems for industrial concerns. But the diversity makes it difficult to see who’s who in this field. Knowing who is out there, and what they’re doing makes it a lot easier for a woodshop to begin the journey into robotics.

Automatech Robotik (automatechrobotik.com) has spent the past 18 years creating robotic cells across North America for cutting, processing, sanding, painting, palletizing and CNC machine feeding. It has posted a number of videos at woodworkingrobot.com that include several case studies of shops whose needs were met by the addition of robots. There are other videos of specific tasks such as labeling, cabinetmaking, sanding and finishing. For example, the video titled “Robotic Cell for Furniture industry” shows how robotic arms are being used in solid wood drawer production and component processing in MDF and particleboard. The processes include drilling, cutting, machining, edgebanding and sanding.

Robotic Solutions (roboticsolutions.net) creates robotic responses for challenges in the wood and composite industries. A dealer for the Kuka models used by MIT, it is also the exclusive U.S. importer of CMA spray robotics from Italy. The company sets up all of the cells that it provides through an Indiana facility where systems are tested and approved before going online at a woodshop.

Learning the ropes

In 2017, the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria published “Robotic Woodcraft”, available at roboticwoodcraft.com, a well-illustrated treatise on how we can use robots in our industry. Rather than considering them to be just fabrication machines that make up the last part of a design-to-production workflow, the university looks at treating them as “integral design tools and multifunctional interfaces that allow us to move from a digital environment into physical space.” That, of course, is exactly what the teams at MIT and NCCR are now doing, moving from CAD (designer-controlled) to interpretative intelligence where the machine ‘learns’.

One way that woodshops can position themselves properly for the robotic evolution is to recruit trained personnel. To that end, technical colleges are increasingly offering relevant courses. For example, Motlow State community College in McMinnville, Tenn. is now the first two-year college in that state to offer specialized training in both mechatronics (combining electrical and mechanical systems), and robotics. The college is home to a state-of-the-art Automation & Robotics Training Center where it offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science mechatronics degree with a concentration in robotics. There are also short-term courses on specific robot brands such as Fanuc America, Yaskawa Motoman, and ABB.

Fanuc recently introduced a new national certification for Robot Operations, Programming and Integrated Vision. This represents an 18-month initiative that brought together experts from industry, automation systems, advisors and instructors from high school, community colleges, and universities - all focused on preparing a pipeline of talent with the core competencies and skills for today’s manufacturing industry. With these challenging and thorough national certification assessments, students and workers are going to be able to document their knowledge and fill high demand, high paying career opportunities in robotics and advanced manufacturing. The skills and knowledge required to obtain these new national certifications are being delivered through a network of secondary and post-secondary schools and training institutions.

Plug and play

For now, woodshops are increasingly adding collaborative robots (cobots) that are designed to safely share workstations with humans, and sense where the human is so as to avoid contact and potential injury. The numbers are impressive – about 30,000 industrial robots are being added each year in the U.S. alone, and the rate is increasing at more than 7 percent annually. Cobots currently spray coatings, sort parts, place components, load/unload machines and perform many mundane tasks that release employees who can be better used elsewhere. Suppliers are streamlining task potential so that new units can be inserted immediately into processes.

For example, Quebec-based Robotiq says its goal is to simplify collaborative robot applications, so that factories can start production faster. The company (robotiq.com), also exemplifies the global nature of this technological revolution. It has a presence in both Canada and France, and its team works with a global network of connected robot experts with the intention of supporting local manufacturers.

Another resource is Universal Robots of Odense, Denmark, which has U.S. offices in Massachusetts, Michigan, California, New York and Texas (universal-robots.com). A supplier of collaborative robots, the company says that moving one of its robot arms to new processes is fast and easy, and provides the ability to automate almost any manual task. The literature goes on to say that “production and distribution of furniture and equipment is labor-intensive, tedious, and physically stressful. Material handling of heavy furniture is one of the main robotic applications to avoid physical burdens for your workers.” And robotic arms are also highly accurate with impressive repeatability, so they help improve the fit and finish of parts while simultaneously speeding up the manufacturing process.

Cobots are just beginning to take on more complex sequences that might include, for example, relating tasks such as drilling, joinery or shaping. And the latest advances suggest that these tasks will not necessarily have to take place within the confines of an assembly line. If they can work in free space, then they can be used to customize. Imagine a series of hardwood fireplace surrounds where each one has a different carving on its face, or each is sized to fit a customer’s specs rather than all having uniform dimensions as they come off the line.

The Biesse Group (biesse.com) has invested heavily in bringing intelligent robotics to the woodshop, and the company leads the way in the customization of loading and unloading cells. Its units are seamlessly integrated with CNC, sizing, boring, edgebanding and sanding machines. The Biesse ROS (Robotically Operated System) offers optimum integration with the manufacturer’s entire range of woodworking equipment from machining centers to panel saws, boring machines and sanding. Robots are extremely adaptable, and most are easy to switch from one area of production to another.

This technology is advancing exponentially and is no longer experimental. It is now proven to be reliable. The physicality (the ways in which arms can move or grasp) has made impressive advances over the past two or three years, and the emergence of logistical learning software – the ability to self-teach – is becoming a very real component.

As Biesse and other manufacturers are proving, robots are no longer just machines. Now, they can put other machines to work. 

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.

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