More than three-quarters of a century ago, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov introduced what are now widely known as his three “Laws of Robotics.” The first of these is: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Deere engineers are turning inaction into action with “collaborative” robots, also known as “cobots.” These robots are smaller than the typical factory robot — they’re about the size of a human — and they don’t require bulky caging because they’re force-limited, which means they’ll shut down instantly if they come in contact with a human.
“The use of collaborative robots is absolutely going to increase,” said Craig Sutton, manager – Advanced Manufacturing Innovation. “We’re looking for opportunities to use collaborative robots for the mundane jobs. These are repetitive jobs and might not be the safest for a human. In other words, it’s not about replacing human work; it’s about letting robotics and automation do the mundane tasks, freeing up our employees to do the highly skilled work that requires a human.”
If it’s too hot . . .
One of those jobs is in a Deere factory in Monterrey, Mexico, where the company heat-treats blades for its mowers. This requires standing by the mouth of the oven and loading a blade into the furnace every 35 seconds. All day. It’s hot, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous work. For a human.
“In this case, we developed a proof of concept, exploring the use of a collaborative robot,” explained Carlos Guzman, strategic manufacturing manager for all Deere facilities in Mexico. “With this new technology, we will be able to make the robot pick the blade and put it into the oven. We can do a job that needs to be done, do it safely, and do it continuously at a lower cost. We plan to implement this in the next quarter once we prepare the customized containers.”
Guzman assembled a team in Mexico with expertise in every competency, including fabrication, machining, welding, materials, and painting. “When engineers call us, our experts can support them and help develop custom solutions,” said Guzman. “We’re also the link in Mexico to the manufacturing enterprise, so my team deploys best manufacturing practices.”
Guzman and his team are working on two more collaborative robot projects.
“We manufacture a lot of hydraulic and fuel tanks for Deere Construction & Forestry and for Agriculture,” said Guzman. “Obviously those tanks need to be well-sealed and well-welded to avoid leaks.” The factory injects a gas into the tanks and then uses a sniffer at all the joints to detect leaks. This will be another application for a cobot.
The team is also targeting another proof of concept for collaborative robots to handle tooling inspection. “We’ll use a scanner camera to easily create a model or pattern,” explained Guzman. “Then we plan to use this model on the shop floor to detect discrepancies against the pattern, like missing parts or distortion. The scanning process will be a good application for a cobot.”
Eliminating down time
At John Deere Electronic Solutions (JDES) in Fargo, North Dakota, there’s no large oven, but there are still opportunities for collaborative robots.
The facility manufactures circuit boards, among other things, and the workflow requires moving boards and controller boxes with great precision all day long, which can be repetitive and boring work.
“One of the things we do a lot of here is testing,” said Supervisor Manufacturing Engineer Mitch Humann, a 21-year Deere veteran. “We test a range of electronics that go on our tractors, combines, and other equipment, such as Starfire GPS, Focus Engine Controllers, and vehicle displays.”
People at JDES realized there might be an opportunity to use a collaborative robot.
“One operator can load and manage several testers at a time, but they still have a lot of downtime,” said Humann, “so we’ve put two collaborative robots in production in just the past year, automating the loading application so operators won’t need to be standing there all the time.”
The collaborative robots perform the dullest, most repetitive parts of the testing process, freeing JDES employees to do more high-skilled tasks, said Humann. For example, performing the intricate assembly of vehicle displays.
“Ideas come from us and from operators on the line,” said Humann. “Ideas can come from anyone who has seen cobots and how they can be used.”
No matter where an idea comes from, it still has to run the same gauntlet that any other equipment purchase has to: How much will it cost? How long will it take to earn a return on the investment? Will it improve employee safety? Product quality? Factory productivity?
“Every factory is different,” Humann said, “however, a cobot is capital equipment, so factories must follow the policies and rules for bringing capital equipment on‑site, including a thorough risk assessment.”
Creating new bonds
At Deere’s drivetrain operations in Waterloo, Iowa, a cobot has been on the assembly line for more than a year and a half.
One of the manufacturing steps requires placing a bead of adhesive onto transmission housings. Since installing a cobot to do the job, the adhesive bead is more consistent and placed more precisely, raising quality significantly and reducing the amount of adhesive used by 60 percent.
Jared Morrison, the ME supervisor for robotics at the drivetrain operations, and his team designed the cobot in‑house. “The whole project cost less than half of what it would’ve cost if we had gone outside,” said Morrison.
The cobot also had an unexpected benefit. “Industrial adhesive has air inside the tube to prevent the adhesive from curing, but when the air bubbles escape outside the tube, they interrupt the bead,” Morrison explained. To fix this problem, Deere engineers designed a new tip for the adhesive tube and filed for a patent. “Now we’re getting a consistent, uninterrupted bead.”
Senior division manager Siegfried Trendler served as project manager for an interdisciplinary team — including safety, engineering, logistics, factory automation, maintenance, and operations — whose goal was to place a collaborative robot on Deere’s assembly line in Mannheim, Germany.
“Sometimes it’s a challenge because parts don’t have a defined position in the bin, making it difficult for the robot to locate the right part, so this is the problem I tried to solve,” explained Trendler, who works for Deere’s European Technology Innovation Center in Kaiserslautern, Germany. “We asked, ‘What if we get a human worker involved to perform certain tasks that are very complicated and very expensive to automate?’”
A human-robot collaboration turned out to be the answer. But not an easy answer.
For some jobs, such as painting or welding, traditional manufacturing robots are programmed to shut down in the presence of a human for safety reasons. But Trendler had to design a safe robot application that could work side-by-side with a human.
“The robot would have to have sensors in its joints so it would be safe to work together with a human,” Trendler said. “With human-robot collaboration, the robot does not have to stop when a human interacts with it.”
The team started by planning a kitting operation — collecting the individual components necessary to manufacture an assembly or product. After testing the robot in the lab by partnering with an integrator experienced this field, they moved it to the assembly line, where it has performed as designed and where workers are becoming accustomed to working alongside a robot.
From here, the robot will serve as a learning incubator for safer robot applications and Industry 4.0 data-driven business processes. Thanks to the robot’s ability to provide data, Deere is able to move to the next steps of innovation: data analytics, predictive technologies such as predictive maintenance, and operation by a digital twin.
What’s in store for collaborative robots?
Sutton, Guzman, Humann, Morrison, and Trendler — all on the front lines of robotics — agree about what to expect in Deere factories a decade from now.
“For sure I think there’s going to be more robotics for applications like ‘pick and place,’” Guzman said.
Morrison noted that every single robotics project has an ergonomic aspect. “So any time we use a robot to move parts around, we are eliminating some amount of iterations that an employee would have had to pick up or put down that part, which is going to reduce injuries,” he said.
Humann predicted everyone would be able to use robots. “Companies are out there trying to make robots very easy to program,” he said. “They’ll make them simple enough that anybody, even people without robotic experience, will be able to program robots. That’s really going to open up a lot of doors in the next 10 to 12 years.”
Trendler believes the current automation cell will spark further ideas for robots to work safely with humans to increase the productivity and quality of John Deere products and foresees robots as data-learning incubators. “We’ll be using operation data to help us advance in data analytics, predictive maintenance, and innovative data dashboard designs,” Trendler predicted.
Deere’s work with cobots illustrates that although its product innovations may get most of the attention, its innovations to manufacture those products may be just as exciting.