How Rapid Robotics is solving the labor shortage for manufacturers

Rapid Robotics' Director of Hardware and Mechanical Systems talks automation and Robotics as a Service

March 9, 2023

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We love hearing about the cool products our customers are building and how Duro transforms their work. This article is part of our Customer Spotlight blog series, where we interview engineers using Duro and share their stories with you.

For this article, we spoke with David Hallock, the Director of Hardware and Mechanical Systems at Rapid Robotics. The company has pioneered a new way to automate processes on manufacturing floors by building reusable robots. As automation becomes more mainstream it’s fascinating to learn about the relationship between robots and humans working together. Rapid Robotics has managed to find a solution to do just that.

Tell me a bit about Rapid Robotics

Rapid Robotics builds robots for manufacturing environments. We automate repetitive tasks that are currently done by humans. In the past, those tasks weren’t considered for automation because of the high cost. But we’re making robotics more accessible and affordable by offering them as a service and reusing the core designs of our robots.

Before any project, we’ll walk the factory floor to identify tasks that would most benefit from automation and where robots could make sense. That might be some of the part handling operations. For example, if someone’s taking a part out of an injection molding machine during an inspection, or doing a pad print. Although our core technology is consistent, we might have to scale our gripping mechanism or change the speed of fixturing because every part and site is unique. We build and test our robots in our own labs before we deliver and install them at the customer’s site.

For Behrens, we built cobots for their production lines. The cobots pierce holes on the side of a metal pail and are controlled via an iPad. We were able to set up the system in two weeks and now the cobots can run up to three shifts a day. So far Behrens has managed to increase throughput by around 10% and reduce scrap.

What makes the company unique?

Automation has traditionally been slow and expensive. Systems integrators can automate practically anything but they have a huge overhead and it can take six months to a year to deploy. Rapid Robotics has significantly brought down the cost and time to market for automation. A new robotic solution can be on a factory floor in around six weeks depending on project complexity. We’ve managed to achieve this by taking a new approach:

Reusing base configurations

We have a standard product baseline that consists of a collaborative arm, a table and a fixturing option. Then we can mount any 3D printed fixture to the robotic arm and add some equipment to house all the electronics and necessary safety equipment. We templatize different reusable options to make it easy to create or adjust designs for each customer.

Licensing our robots as a service

We provide automation or robotics as a service (RaaS). That means customers pay a subscription fee instead of a big upfront capital cost. We maintain ownership of the equipment as if it’s our employee working at their facility. Then if a customer needs to change the task, we can easily change the robot fixture as needed.

Focusing only specific tasks

We don’t try to automate everything. We only look for tasks that are repetitive, time consuming and easy for us to automate. This simplifies our process and ensures success.

What kind of tools do you rely on to help you get to market so quickly?

  • Solidworks CAD – Our mechanical engineers use SolidWorks to create design templates. The base configurations of all of our products have a variety of table options so that we can delete or move them around for a particular scenario. Our living breathing CAD model is automatically mapped from SolidWorks into Duro PLM.
  • Duro PLM – Duro helps us manage the base configuration of the whole robot. The team can then rapidly create customizations from base templates for specific customer use cases and find earlier revisions. Having central accessibility for all our product data and design revisions makes it easy for us to duplicate or alter products and stay up to date with what we do in the field.
  • 3D printing – We use 3D printing quite a bit. It helps us make and iterate on parts quickly. For example, we can spin up new designs for grippers or fixtures in less than a day and then test them in our lab before iterating.

“Duro helps to get back into the level of fidelity that’s required to hand it off to a contract manufacturer to keep revisions under control and actually have a process by validating through change orders.”

How do you address concerns about automation taking people’s jobs?

Actually, there’s a shortage of machine operators in the manufacturing industry. In March 2022, the Labor Department showed 860k unfilled entry-level manufacturing jobs. Bringing down the costs of automation and making it more accessible is only going to benefit manufacturers and their employees.
Additionally, most of the tasks we end up automating are very repetitive and boring. So our robots take over those tasks and humans can focus on all of the other essential activities in the warehouse.

What advancements in technology are driving innovation in robotics?

We’re excited about how far vision technology has come. Autonomous driving has revolutionized the industry and because the pricing for Lidar has come down, it’s now accessible for robotics. When it comes to robotics on the manufacturing floor, being able to identify a part that is perhaps in a different orientation using vision will help improve efficiency. We’ll be able to take a CAD model of a part, give the robot a bunch of image data from all different directions and then it can automatically detect it when it’s in a bin or on a conveyor belt, and then grip it accordingly.

In general, the ability to license and reuse tools built by other people, like Lidar or 3D scanners, means smaller companies can deliver value much faster.

Have you read or seen anything interesting recently?

Boston Dynamics released a new video showing its bipedal robot Atlas tossing tool bags around a (fake) construction site that was pretty cool. It’s exciting to see how far robots have come in terms of mobility and intelligence.

What’s next for Rapid Robotics?

We’re going to be introducing a new industrial robot. It incorporates all the learnings from our existing robotics into a new product. The upcoming robot has better safety features, flexible mobility and a compact footprint as well as higher speeds and the ability to do more than one task.
We don’t think anything like this is currently available so we’re really excited. Most of the industrial solutions today need to be in a fixed position. Our solution offsets the high costs of doing automation by having the ability to do multiple tasks on different areas of the same factory floor.

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