Faster, cheaper and more efficient – these are concepts that every manufacturer is tasked with maintaining without sacrificing product quality. Achieving process success for a more resilient operation, however, takes dedication and resources. Key to this organizational turnaround is the concept of workflow optimization, where production processes are streamlined in such a way that risk is mitigated and throughput is optimized. Companies that can successfully implement innovative concepts and new technologies will be primed for maximum production agility.

Forward-thinking decision makers are realizing this. So much so, that many are embracing trends toward workflow optimization for continued business performance. From tech investment for end-to-end value delivery to enterprise resource planning (ERP) for data-driven optimized planning, much can be encompassed into this concept. However, streamlining processes and optimizing capacity at a large scale rarely happens without the presence of flexible robotic automation. From faster cycle times for optimal production output to reduced part rework for improved product quality, the strategic planning that goes into robot integration is key.

Robotic Roadmapping

Whether decision makers are choosing to implement a complete system from end- to-end or they are looking to integrate a single workcell to alleviate an operational bottleneck, there are multiple concepts to consider where continuous improvement and workflow for automation are concerned:

Understand the “Why”

Outlining key objectives to better understand production needs before robot selection will help drive the project from start to finish. From adding production capacity, to tackling quality concerns and meeting on-time demand, to gaining competitive advantage, raising additional revenue and much more, listing all relevant end goals and working from those will guide the decision making process. Important questions to ask at this stage include:

  • What is the motivation behind capital investment?
  • How will short-term or long-term success be measured?
  • What are key performance indicators?
  • What are the target cycles per minute/day/hour and acceptable failures per day/hour/minute?

Being honest with answering these questions, and others, goes a long way to determining system type. Depending on target goals, application requirements and floorspace constraints, a faster system with limitations may be necessary versus a slower yet perfect system.

Know the Process

While it may seem obvious, having a clear understanding of the production process and what it is needing to thrive is a must. Whether via in-house research or by recruiting the expertise of a robot professional during a site audit, it is important to weigh questions like the following:

  • How will automation be utilized (i.e., single-step vs. end-to-end, or somewhere in between)?
  • How much flexibility does the application require?
  • Is a stationary system needed or is a mobile robotic platform in order?
  • How “smart” or cutting-edge does the system and tooling need to be?
  • How controlled are infeeds and outfeeds?

The compilation of answers will dictate robot usage and system design. Keep in mind that current production layouts that use more fixed or hard automation will most likely be less complicated to automate. Random layouts with multiple infeeds and outfeeds, on the other hand, will up the complexity factor.

Cultivate Employee Buy-In

Perhaps as important as defining clear cut goals is motivating internal employees and valued stakeholders to grasp the idea of robotic automation and work hard to help fulfill the vision. To pursue unmotivated individuals, decision makers might want to provide answers to the following:

  • What are the quality of life benefits that the automation will bring?
  • What job advancement opportunities will be available as a result of internal robot use?
  • What kind of training will be provided to robot operators?

Regarding the ladder concept of training, companies may choose to appoint, or even hire, a “workcell champion.” This employee – fully dedicated and accountable for integration, programming utilization and maintenance of the robot system – is instrumental, and can be advantageous in helping decision makers garner support for meeting project deliverables.

Partner for Performance

To save on time, effort and resources, it is always advised to work with an experienced robot integrator or supplier. Inviting a knowledgeable expert into your facility to meet the production team and perform a site audit will get the project off to a smooth start, as well as answer any questions about production bottlenecks, worker safety, robot peripherals, etc. Keep in mind, every production floor is unique, and questions to be mindful of are:

  • What is the technical feasibility of the task I want to automate? Is there a better way?
  • Are there other areas on our production floor that would easily benefit from robotic automation?
  • Is my process common among other companies or significantly unique that automation may be breaking new ground?

With respect to technical feasibility, if the task in question cannot logically and safely be addressed, finding another option is in order. Moreover, having a skilled individual assess current production can help address other areas for automation that may have been overlooked.

Automation Inspiration

While a majority of manufacturers looking to improve workflow will have a pre-planned idea as to what application they would like to automate, it is not uncommon for select companies to be unsure of where to begin. This “cold turkey” approach to robotic automation can be overwhelming, but again, enlisting the professional know-how from a skilled robotics integrator or supplier can help guide the robot selection and integration process. For decision makers searching for the right place to implement robotic automation, here are some popular robot installations to inspire:


The relatively simple process of end-of-line palletizing is often the best place for manufacturers to start. Highly repetitive, this back-breaking application that typically involves moving uniform boxes from a conveyor to a pallet is perfect for robotic automation. Plus, the process can be further simplified via easy-to-use software that enables users to generate even the most complicated package and pallet layouts offline. For environments that demand more flexibility, heavy-payload collaborative robots with plug and play tool flange capability for quick changeover are being used. These fenceless systems are ideal for providing consistent and cost-effective palletizing in low- to medium-speed settings.

Picking and Placing

Adding a bit of difficulty to the mix is the concept of pick and place, where individual items are placed in trays or onto a conveyor for further packaging down the line. Often utilizing intuitive software and feature-rich vision technology to identify, orient and place objects with speed and precision, this process can definitely serve to improve cycle times.

Picking and Packing

For operations looking to move trays from a pick and place process, or load singulated or grouped items into bigger cartons, picking and packing can be an ideal place to start for new robot users. Keep in mind that while picking and packing can be achieved using clever conveyor and tooling designs for uniform products, the sortation of mixed items adds complexity and will require the use of sophisticated peripherals.


Considered the “holy grail” of unloading, sortation of unstructured, mixed objects is one of the most complex tasks to automate. However, intelligent robot systems using a mix of various technologies, including Human Machine Interfaces (HMI), AI software and 3D vision, are modernizing this process and making it more accessible than ever – allowing robots to pick up objects quickly and reliably with minimum human intervention. Easily integrated with a wide range of traditional equipment, high-speed induction systems are especially helpful for reducing production bottlenecks where rapid sortation and singulation for downstream processes are concerned.

Machine Tending

Whether making agricultural, appliance or automotive components, robots excel at the transfer of parts for optimal production flow. Collaborative robots with Power and Force Limiting technology are well-suited in busy settings where there is the potential for harmful contact situations. Easily integrated with existing automation or machinery, cobot systems using speed and separation monitoring (i.e., laser scanners and light curtains) for safety zone monitoring are ideal.


For operations that require welding, optimizing product throughput may be as simple as adding a single robot arm – as this has the potential to reduce the cycle time per part in half, while maintaining the footprint of the workcell. New robot users on the other hand may want to consider a complete welding workcell. From ultra-compact options for adding capacity to pre- engineered efficiency workcells that are geared toward mitigating labor shortage and quality concerns, multiple solutions exist. Growing in popularity for this task is the use of human-collaborative robots. From highly portable weld carts that are easily rolled-up to large workpieces to complete collaborative workcells that are fully equipped with an industrial pedigree cobot, integrated weld package, intuitive weld interface, arc flash protection, fume mitigation and more, greater flexibility for small- to medium-size part processing is highly accessible.

Additive Manufacturing

A driving force for advanced prototyping and production, the use of 3D printing is an extremely beneficial application for manufacturers looking to reduce lead times. Ideal for making one-off parts or fixtures, being able to adapt and leverage design freedom with less labor and raw materials is quickly making this a shop floor must have. From plastic to plaster, the variety of compatible materials available for 3D printing is also advantageous for fulfilling unique application requirements. Basic desktop 3D printers and those with stair stepper motors are giving way to servo-controlled 3D printers with high resolution feedback. Moreover, the use of six axis robots with few limitations for printing unique angles is growing, causing manufacturers to take a second look at the possibilities this process and technology can bring to the shop floor. Companies, like ADDiTEC, are taking this concept a step further by offering an intuitive human machine interface (HMI) with a high-performance robot. This enables the unique ability to process two wire materials in a single part, along with the ability to print power and wire materials at that same time, making this process ideal for the creating of highly complex components from demanding materials.

While the robotic system chosen to optimize operations will obviously depend on the task at hand, these applications provide a glimpse of what is within reach. Overall, the use of robotic automation is most often an expedient, cost-effective option for various tasks, and its usage should be highly considered where workflow is concerned.

By: Chris Caldwell, Product Manager at Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division