Without the proper end-of-arm tooling (EOAT), robotics adds little value to a production process. In fact, choosing the wrong EOAT can increase downtime and drive down productivity. Here are the essential EOAT solution questions to ask to ensure you choose an EOAT that maximizes your production and investment.
ARE THERE ANY SANITARY NEEDS TO CONSIDER?
Sanitation is extremely important depending on the application. Applications dealing with food should be particularly mindful about sanitation requirements and how the tooling does (or does not) meet the need.
Meat and poultry operations have strict regulatory guidelines to follow regarding cleanliness. Bakery operations, on the other hand, need to consider ingredients like sugar, flour and syrup. The EOAT should match the product you’re handling and the issues associated with that product—not only for the product itself but also the cleaning processes for the machines and tooling.
The ideal EOAT will also ensure sanitary operations for the long term. A suction EOAT, for example, can vacuum food byproduct into the system, causing risks for system-wide contamination and maintenance nightmares. Suction cups will also require a full-system cleaning eventually with the application determining how often. It might not be something you think about upfront, but it becomes a problem afterwards.
CAN THE EOAT PICK AND PLACE MY PRODUCT?
While this seems like an easy one, it can sometimes be tricky. Most of the focus with EOAT is about picking, but that’s only half of it. The other imperative question is: can the product be placed?
When it comes to picking, consider the product and its packaging. If it has a flat surface, suction may work well. If the product doesn’t have a flat surface, that likely isn’t the best solution. It’s also important to consider the physical properties, including mass, size and structure, of the product being transported. If the product is delicate, like a bakery item, or bruises easily, like some types of produce, an EOAT that can crush the product, bruise it or leave indentation marks from the tool while picking should be avoided.
Packaging is also a factor to consider when it comes to placement. If the product is being placed in a large, open box, it’s an easier solution but that is a rarity. Often customers want the product precisely placed in the package each and every time. Others want the product placed according to a specific orientation in the package every single time. In choosing an EOAT, placing product in a specific compartment, in a detailed pattern, in a small area often gets missed. Knowing your metrics (Do I need precision within 1 mm or within 1 inch? Is there a specific placement order from left to right?) will help you choose the right EOAT.
For any application, EOAT should excel at both picking and placing, and consistently hold product in between. The right solution will pick easily, transport product to packaging, and repeatedly and accurately place according to specific metrics and requirements with each and every pick.
DOES THE EOAT MEET SPEED AND ALSO APPLICATION NEEDS?
Know what your production rate is versus what you are expecting from your robot solution. Can the EOAT keep up with the speed demands? Is the product traveling a long distance after being picked before being placed? Should the product be released and placed from a low height or can it be released quickly from a higher height? Some objects are harder to grasp than others and when combined with the sheer force of being lifted and moved, it can be difficult for an EOAT to even pick let alone hold the object until it is placed.
Depending on your application, it may be advantageous to use a multi-head tool for picking multiple items at once, or depending on the flow of product, make sense to have multiple robots with individual tools for each.
HOW ADAPTABLE IS THE TOOL?
The ideal EOAT solution should adapt to any changes in product type or size, processing and packaging equipment and any operational inputs, now and in the future. Are you running different SKUs, running the same product that varies in shape and size, or moving multiple products down the same line? If so, you want to look at the tooling and find something that is adaptable or adjustable so you don’t need to change the tools on the robot every time a new SKU, size, shape or weight comes down the line. Another option to consider a tool that is easily reconfigured to help reduce downtime and costs required for needing multiple tools.
IS THIS A RETROFIT LINE?
The most important consideration with a retrofit line is to ensure the robotic system in place will work with the new EOAT solution. If switching to a more substantial tool, can the robot handle the additional mass of the tooling? This is especially true when switching from a vacuum system. Will the controls, wiring and mounting pattern be compatible as well? The tooling change may also affect the overall pick and place motion as well.
IS THE EOAT EASY TO USE?
An EOAT should be simple to use and allow you to customize, test and validate your equipment in your own environment. You definitely want something simple so you can fine tune and adjust the tooling for your specific needs. A solution without several individually controlled actuators or a complex control system may be easier to use. An intuitive user interface and control unit will also help ensure easy programming. Depending on the number of SKUs and overall product mix, the ability to save certain recipes is ideal.
WHAT ARE THE ONGOING MAINTENANCE COSTS?
While you may have a cost-effective EOAT, will it still be cost effective once it’s in operation? One of the drawbacks with a vacuum system is the need for large motors, sometimes up to five horsepower, to pump air into the system. And while suction cups are a relatively low cost investment, the cost to operate them is not. Be sure to analyze the associated cost to run the tool. In addition, consider the lifecycle of system components. Depending on the number of cycles your operations require, repair and replacement parts may add up quickly.
WHAT TECHNICAL SUPPORT IS AVAILABLE?
This goes hand-in-hand with the solution. If you don’t have robust support with the solution, you should avoid that tool. Compare the tool to the 80/20 rule. It’s easy to see the initial 80 percent—if the robot works for your application at speeds you require, but it’s the last 20 percent when you really want to fine tune the application to optimize the performance and overall life of the given tool. Without the proper support to help optimize the solution for the specific application, you will undoubtedly encounter increased operational costs due to less than optimal tooling.
ARE THERE ANY LIMITATIONS?
Put your solution to the test. Review the EOAT with a trusted source, such as a manufacturer, or in house. While there is no way to know the restrictions for every application, testing allows you to understand the limits of the tooling before you sign the dotted line.
HOW DOES THIS EOAT FACTOR INTO OVERALL SYSTEM ROI?
While the EOAT cost is merely a sliver of the overall system cost, it’s perhaps the most important functional piece of the project. Therefore, ensuring you have the right tool for the job is imperative. Choosing the wrong EOAT is exponentially more expensive when it comes to both initial investment and long-term operational impacts. Be sure to consider the overall cost, time and value of the EOAT’s ROI, and not simply the cost of initial investment.