General Industry: OLRP Insights

Episode Two: RobotWorx

RobotWorx: Automation for the General Industry

In episode two of General Industry: OLRP Insights, Jon House sits down with Tom Fischer, Operations Manager at RobotWorx. RobotWorx focuses on providing quality industrial robotic solutions and customized integration worldwide. Earlier this year OCTOPUZ, partnered with RobotWorx to provide Offline Robot Programming as part of their service offering.

You will learn about what is the perception of the General Industry today, versus, say 10 years ago, what is the #1 misconception companies have when looking at bringing on their first-ever robot cell, and more!

Jon House:
When we decided to launch this webinar series, RobotWorx was on the shortlist of companies that we wanted to participate. We are glad to have this opportunity to chat. Tom let's start with you telling the audience a bit about yourself and about RobotWorx.

Tom Fischer:
Thanks for the invite. My name is Tom Fischer and I'm the Operations Manager at RobotWorx. I’m a graduate of Ferris State University's Welding Engineer program. I've been around robots for about 20 years, about 10 of those years I worked in the automotive industry.

As far as RobotWorx, we're a full-service integrator. We were founded by Keith Warner in 1992. We integrate new and reconditioned robots to work cells, and we are certified integrators for ABB, Fanuc, KUKA, Lincoln Electric, and Motoman. Our other claim to fame other than reconditioning robots is our website Robots.com, it’s pretty well known across the industry. In 2014 we were purchased by Scott Automation, a New Zealand based company. Their over 100 years old and has a global presence on every continent.

Jon House:
That’s a legendary URL, Robots.com. I want to get to that a little bit later. You mentioned you’ve been working with robots for over 20 years. That’s a lot of experience. What would you say are the major differences today in working with robots, versus 20 years ago, from your experience?

Tom Fischer:
Obviously, they've come a long way in 20 years, I think the biggest impact is the software improvements. The most recent ones being safety, application-specific, like your welding and material handling, and finally motion specific, so being able to move more accurately, easier defining motion, and geometries. Hardware improvements have gotten faster, smaller controllers, and more accurate robots, with that, programming languages have also evolved. With all these new improvements to the software, we definitely see complications with programming or an increase in programming complications. The main challenge is jumping from a welding robot to a material handling robot and then back to welding with trying to keep all that instruction in your head.

Jon House:
In terms of colleges and universities, you're located in close proximity to some of the best in the country when it comes to robotics. If you could change one thing about the typical robotics or fabrication programs at a college or university, what would you change? What do you see is typically missing?

Tom Fischer:
From what we typically see, a lot of the certifications for robotics are coming out as material handling. When looking at a facility, material handling, is only a small portion of what you are doing, especially in a manufacturing environment. In an ideal world, you would see more application-specific certifications coming out where people can pick up the pendant right away, know how to weld, know how to spot weld, all those items. Then as the industry grows for OLRP and simulation, a complete programmer needs more than just a pendant in their hand. They need to know how to use the software.

Jon House:
This webinar is focused on what we call the general industry. I believe that's a space that OCTOPUZ really lives in as well as RobotWorx. Is RobotWorx entirely general industry? What's your perception of the general industry today versus, 10 years ago?

Tom Fischer:
The general industry is a big part of what RobotWorx does. Being in Central Ohio, the automotive and defense industries, among others are right local to us. The general industry is clearly growing over the last 10 years and is continuing to grow. Historically, industrial robots were primarily in the automotive industry. However, now the general industry is seeing the same operating benefits. It's definitely not a saturated market and they’re creating innovation within the robotics industry.

Jon House:
I believe there will be a day in the future, where the vast majority of manufacturing facilities will have an industrial robot. You probably see that with CNC machinery today, right? There's some sort of CNC machine in almost every manufacturing facility. I think with robots, we have a long way to go. From your perspective, is there anything critical that needs to change to make that happen? Is it the cost of hardware integration? Does it need to be easier to use? Does there need to be better support with supporting technologies like offline robot programming, software, vision, collaborative robots? How do you look at that?

Tom Fischer:
Definitely, the cost of investment and ease of use is going to be the drivers for getting those into the shops. If you look at a CNC, for instance, it can be dropped on the floor and start running as soon as powers run to it. I think that's a big part of the co-bot movement, the ease of programming of the co-bots that are coming out now, as well as the perception of quicker uptime, getting them installed, and getting used to them right away. Typically, in the robotics industry, they've had a silo approach to programming languages. With CNC and the language of G code and M code is industry-wide. Everybody knows about it, it's common on both robots, each manufacturer has their own language. It all does the same thing, but it's just a slightly different methodology behind it. I think that's where OLRP software will come into play. It's going to create that common language, similar to the CNC industry, where G code and M code are popular.

Jon House:
That's definitely why we have a business and where our roots come from, so it’s good to hear you say that. RobotWorx does it all: a variety of robot brands, different applications, new robots, and a lot of old robots. What would you say is your bread and butter so to speak?

Tom Fischer:
Our bread and butter are really reconditioning robots and work cells. Over the last few years, we've increased the amount of new robot systems we're doing and won multiple awards from the OEMs, based on that increase. We were founded by an Ohio State welding engineer, so our primary focus historically has been welding. Right now, we see a lot of welding, material handling, material removal, and just general handling are our primary applications.

Jon House:
RobotWorx and OCTOPUZ have worked together quite closely for a number of years now. Prior to ~2018, at that time RobotWorx wasn't really promoting any agnostic offline robot programming products. What prompted, RobotWorx to finally invest in OCTOPUZ and OLRP?

Tom Fischer:
If I remember correctly, I think I met you guys first around 2017. At that time, we weren't doing any offline programming, and for simulation, we use our corporate directive for another brand of simulation. Around that time your OLRP market started to grow and we started to see more demand. We were getting requests from manufacturers for ease of use of robots so that they can get their beginners on robots and up and running quicker. As well as, looking for uses for their underutilized CAD operators. I think both of those started to grow that sector of the market. Then, with us being certified for four brands of robots, the commonality of software made more sense for us than having to maintain multiple licenses.

Jon House:
If we go back to the URL Robots.com, maybe inbound leads are not a problem for RobotWorx. You must talk to a lot of companies looking at robots, and I'm curious about a few things. What do you see as the number one misconception companies have when looking at bringing on their first-ever robot?

Tom Fischer:
Robots.com, we were fortunate enough that our founder had the insight to know what the internet was going to become when he purchased that 30 years ago. I think the biggest misconception that people have when they're getting into robots is the commitment it's going to take. The ownership that you take into the project really dictates the success of the project. That really goes around training, maintenance, upkeep, utilization, and time. Those are all services RobotWorx can help with, including directing people in the right direction with OLRP.

Jon House:
What are you constantly having to educate the market on? What should companies know about robots and automation that they don't know?

Tom Fischer:
The markets are getting very educated, I blame Google for that. The complexity of programming is the biggest thing. CNC shops are looking to incorporate robots and come in with that mindset of CNC programming. With the additional pitch and roll, programming becomes a lot more complicated for a CNC operator to visualize. They really don't understand that complication until you get a pendant in their hand. Then they see the extended axis movement that they're not seeing with the CNC.

Jon House:
We talked a bit about maybe new entrants into the robot market when you talk to a company that is quite experienced with robots. Why are they contacting RobotWorx now? What's important to them on their fifth robot cell, that maybe it wasn't as important to them on their first?

Tom Fischer:
I think with the number of integrators out there, the biggest thing is relationship building. We work with partners like yourself and have developed a lot of relationships through our parts and service department. We've got an exceptional service team that has extensive knowledge of what we would consider legacy equipment. Usually, when we help somebody with their older equipment, they'll come to us because they know we can handle the tough jobs on new equipment as well. Then networking, and keeping in mind with those relationships that yes, it's a large industry, but they're small networks. You have to be aware of who you're talking to what relationships you're building and making sure that their project is the most important project you have at that moment.

Jon House:
What level of full-service solutions are the majority of clients looking for? It sounds like they don't just want you to install the cell and leave, they’re looking for some sort of longer-term hand-holding. How much are most of these customers expecting? What are they asking for?

Tom Fischer:
We typically see a wide range of first-time buyers and experienced customers. Usually, the first time buyers are entering the robot realm and want a one-stop-shop. They want you to know that their project is important to them and they want you to show them how important it is to you. That all goes around to know that you're going to take care of them. They want to understand that when they pick up the phone and call you, you're there to support them. I would say first-time buyers are definitely looking for the one-stop-shop that offers a whole gambit. Experienced customers, it's a whole different ballgame. They want a solution, they may or may not have an idea in their head. All they want is for you to put that on paper, design it, build it, and deliver it.

Jon House:
There's a well-documented shortage of skilled labour in the trades. How are these companies who are doing the right thing and finally investing in automation also, handling the problem of who’s going to program the robot? What are you hearing from your customers?

Tom Fischer:
There's definitely a shortage, we see it, we have tech positions posted all the time that we can't fill. I think we've put ourselves in a tough position promoting college over tech schools so heavily. Additionally, internal advancement is the best way. I always say your best welder is going to make your best robot programmer when it comes to robotic welding. Ramtec is here in Ohio and they are the national model for tech high schools. We pull in a lot of their students, as well as we see them go out in the industry. I’m really big on internal advancement, pulling your best people up is only going to be a win-win for the company and that individual.

Jon House:
Definitely, it's super important, we certainly agree with that. From a sales and business perspective, there are winners and losers, with COVID. Where do you think RobotWorx sits? Is automation, in general, a definite long-term winner due to the COVID impacts?

Tom Fischer:
It’s, definitely been a tough year with COVID. As far as RobotWorx, we've survived multiple recessions. We’ve been around for 28 years, we plan on being here, at least 20 more. The COVID situation, with the newfound knowledge of social distancing, there is a need for workforce agility. There's definitely a long-term market in automation, some that's going to come from the advances in technology. That's going to create opportunities for growth. I think the service-based integrators and the software developers like yourself, who can offer a value add beyond the initial install are the ones that are going to benefit long term.

Jon House:
We hear prospective clients talk about the robot cells being underutilized all the time. Sometimes they're talking about a capacity percentage. Or sometimes a cell is literally sitting in the corner of the shop, not doing anything. At OCTOPUZ we may attribute this to the robot or the teach pendant being too cumbersome to use in combination with what we just talked about, the lack of skilled labor in the trades. What's your take on that?

Tom Fischer:
Well, obviously saying we buy and sell recondition robots to work cells we hear about this all the time. Teach pendant programming is definitely a barrier. A lot of times a small company can only afford to train one operator on how to run that machine when the operator decides to move on, or the increase in the use of that machine creates a void where they can't support it, then their sales teams are definitely hesitant to fill that capacity. Underutilized equipment, we see a lot, for the same reasons, they just don't have the people that keep it running through shifts. They can't afford to take it down for a period of time to get a new product put on it. I think that's a good opportunity for offline robot programming. Companies like OCTOPUZ help you bring on a new product quickly, as well as, making that programming easier for a novice programmer to be able to operate a machine and bring it online.

Jon House:
For those new to OLRP, who is the best candidate to be the OCTOPUZ user? Companies often ask who should I put on the software? Is it the robot operator, the CAD savvy SolidWorks type person? Is it the welder or the machinist? There's probably no perfect answer. What would you say, Tom?

Tom Fischer:
I would think all of them bring something to the table, the robot programmer is going to bring his skillset into the virtual, the CAD operator obviously is going to be exceptionally efficient of navigating the system. Again, from experience, the welder makes the best robotic welding programmer. The welders are the guys that are going to be able to understand the fundamentals and be able to translate that into the virtual and then back into the real world.

Jon House:
It's going to be tough to find someone that hits on all of them perfectly, of course. For my last question, before we open it up to the audience for their questions. What advice do you give to manufacturers considering offline robot programming?

Tom Fischer:
I think the biggest thing is you need is to have a plan, you got to treat it like a project. When customers come to us, we want to understand their needs. If they're just looking for ease of programming, there are options out there, if they're looking for ease of programming and simulation, there are options out there, and if they're just looking for simulation, there are options out there. So, we encourage them to demo each solution, get a better understanding of each, and how it applies to their needs.
Then we always encourage recommendations and referrals. Hearing it straight from the horse's mouth of other customers that are using it in the same way that this customer is looking for, obviously gives them peace of mind that they're going with the right system. With those recommendations, referrals, and demos, it's important to have confidence in your decision. We hear a lot of customers that will come to us saying they've purchased the software, they're ready to go, they just need the robot. They get the robot, and they find out the software doesn't do what they needed to do. So, it creates a double investment. Treat it like a project and make sure you end up with the software that in the end, it does exactly what you want it to do.

Jon House:
Thanks, Tom. It's an important decision. So be diligent about your evaluation or your research on the products that you're looking at. Well, this has been great, Tom, thanks. A ton of experience, obviously. Thanks again!

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