Programming via drag-and-drop

One of the biggest obstacles to the acquisition of industrial robots in manufacturing SMEs is the lack of skilled workers. Against this background, a new operating system has been developed which allows the simple creation of programs via drag & drop.

Germany ranks third worldwide in terms of the use of industrial robots. 322 industrial robots are employed for every 10,000 people, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Only South Korea and Singapore are ahead. The high robot density in industry is due in particular to the large German sectors such as the automotive industry, which orders one third of all industrial robots worldwide. But the challenge is to make automation interesting for small and medium-sized companies as well. The biggest hurdles on this path are currently still the high acquisition costs and the lack of flexibility in application. The latter is partly due to the complex programming.

The creation of robot programs currently follows different procedures – depending on the manufacturer, planned use and the necessary flexibility of the industrial robot. Among the known methods are teaching with a teach pendant, the specification of movements by pointing or instructing, or the creation of programs in a CAD-based simulation environment. The latter variant in particular is quite complex and requires sound knowledge of the robot manufacturer’s programming language. Programming and function expansion is therefore very time- and cost-intensive, which prevents the flexible use of robots. Against this background, manufacturers and independent software companies and research institutes are working hard on various solutions to make the use of industrial robots more flexible.

One of these has been developed at the Fraunhofer IPA – developed by a team around Martin Naumann. The so-called drag&bot software is designed to make robot programming as easy as using a smartphone. The aim is to enable production employees without robotics know-how to program industrial robots. To enable even untrained personnel to create new functional sequences quickly and intuitively, it is supported by various operating and input aids – also known as wizards. This enables simple parameterization of the program sequences.

The program modules or function blocks are then combined into executable applications according to the drag & drop principle. The advantage: via the cloud, the programmed sequences can be shared and reused with all internal company robots. The user also has the option of copying the existing programs and adapting them individually for his area of application.

independent of manufacturer and hardware

One of the great advantages of drag&bot: The user interface is not only easy to use, but also offers a uniform interface independent of the robot used. The drag&bot software already supports Universal Robot, Kuka, Denso, Fanuc and ABB as well as various grippers, screwdriving tools, other tools controllable via I/Os and various cameras and image processing libraries. And here, too, the integration of further tools and peripheral devices is continuing. The modular structure of the software facilitates these integration processes.

The drag&bot software consists of two parts: the cloud-based user interface and the execution environment running on an industrial PC, which communicates with the robot controller and other peripheral devices and controls the application sequence. The execution environment represents an abstraction layer and forms the basis of a uniform user interface for robots from different manufacturers.

Currently drag&bot is already being used for various applications – for example, for machine loading and unloading. Manufacturers of injection molded plastic parts or metal parts, for example, are always faced with the task of inserting parts into machines and removing them from them. For this purpose, employees are often employed who spend hours exclusively feeding parts from crates or magazines into the machine and then put them back into the crates or magazines after processing. These tasks are ideally suited for robots. With drag&bot, employees of the companies can instruct the robots themselves and adapt them to part- and system-specific conditions. The advantage over a purchased turnkey complete solution is that the customer can easily reprogram the robots himself when changing this process or teaching other parts. In addition, up to 50% of the investment costs can be saved compared to a purchased complete solution, since many tasks – especially programming – can be performed by the user himself.

Another typical application for the new software approach is the automation of quality inspections. Many products, assemblies or parts have to be checked for quality in various ways after production. Often, selected or all parts are inserted into and removed from test fixtures individually. This process is often very time-consuming and cost-intensive, as employees have to place parts individually by hand in the testing machine, close the door, start the testing program manually and then remove the parts from the machine again. Until now, automation has not been possible cost-effectively due to the large number of variants. With drag&bot, the customer is now able to instruct the robot itself for a wide variety of variants and thus flexibly automate quality inspections.

Example number three: Assembly work in the automotive industry, the number 1 automation industry in Germany. Up to now, industrial robots have been used there in large-scale series production and perform the same tasks over several years without the need for changes to the processes. Due to the lack of skilled workers, however, it is becoming increasingly important, especially for suppliers, to automate activities that were previously performed manually due to their flexibility requirements – such as the assembly of modules. At an automotive supplier, a previously manual pre-assembly line was supplemented by robots that take over the joining and screwing processes and can be adapted to new tasks by the supplier himself in a short time using drag&ange.

Also suitable for MRK applications

Recently there has been a trend in robotics to use robots without fences. Drag&bot can also be used for such applications to teach the robot collaborative applications intuitively and quickly. In such applications, human safety must continue to be guaranteed by the robot’s safety functions, such as force and speed limitation and defined workspace limits. Although these safety functions can still be configured in the robot’s safety controller, drag&bot enables simple graphical application programming on this basis.

In order to use industrial robots even more flexibly, they must become even more sensitive, networked and capable of learning. The programming approach described above already supports the sensitive functions of Kuka’s LBR iiwa, for example, and enables them to be used easily via the software’s graphical interface – without any knowledge of Java. Furthermore, there are additional modules that enable functions such as image processing, force control and grip-in-the-box, thus enabling the robots to react flexibly to their environment.

In the future, developers will increasingly rely on technologies such as artificial intelligence, networking and deep learning, not least in industry. To this end, drag&offered open interfaces to enable developers to integrate new function blocks, new software modules – for example for machine learning – and new graphical user interfaces, thus making these functions easy to use.

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