Watch the video interview here: https://youtu.be/8rgtFilknIo
Welcome to today’s show. I’m delighted to be joined by Tim DeRosett, director of product, for Brooks Automation. Welcome, Tim. Nice to see you today.
Hi, Trevor. It’s good to be here. Thank you.
For the benefit of our viewers, tell us a little bit about Brooks Automation and its origins. Where did it come from?
Brooks Automation has been around for 40 years, and we started by delivering automation equipment for the semiconductor industry and robots for wafer handling and various vacuum systems. And we’re the number one robot and automation supplier into the semiconductor industry.
The group that I am with was acquired by Brooks about two years ago and is now part of the Emerging Automation Solutions group and specifically working with a line of collaborative robots called PreciseFlex Collaborative Robots.
I understand that a lot of your work has been done in the semiconductor space though, in clean rooms and that sort of thing. When you’re working in that type of environment, do you have to be concerned with any emissions coming from the machines?
Yes. Typically, in the semiconductor space, of course, cleanliness is critically important. Any contaminants in the process or handling of wafers can cost quite a lot in quality, yield and product defects. With PreciseFlex Collaborative Robots, we’re not in the semiconductor space, but in electronics assembly, which has clean room requirements, but not as stringent as semiconductor. Our collaborative robots are quite clean in terms of emissions for electronics, but also with particle generation.
Another restriction with factories and especially clean rooms is the footprint for each of these cobots. You’re known also to have a fairly small footprint on your PreciseFlex.
Yes, our collaborative robots have a unique geometry in that the major axis moves vertically. With a tall Z-axis and slim arm design our robots are well suited for moving in and out of equipment horizontally. That enables us to stack testers or equipment vertically and shrink the overall footprint. The controls are embedded, so there’s no external controller for the robot. This provides a nice workspace density within the factory.
How many axes does each robot have and what range of grippers and nozzles do you have?
We have a range of robots that go from 2- to 6-axis, or degrees of freedom. Most of the applications that we see within the electronics industry and, particularly within PCA test load and unload, are four-axis applications. We find that most of the applications are flat to flat, meaning that they’re picking up an object that’s flat and transferring it to another location that’s also flat. So, you don’t necessarily need the full 6-axis articulation. The robots have numerous servo grippers that are designed to handle PCBs and PCAs, and the gripper fingers can always be customized for the applications.
What safety features then are built into the systems?
Our robots are collaborative and inherently safe. In fact, because we move the major axis horizontally and not vertically against gravity, we have very low gear ratios. As a result, there is very low reflected inertia and the robot can move – and stop – quickly with low collision forces. If it happens to come in contact with a worker or even equipment, it can stop very quickly. Our cobots are the only type with this design that have such low reflected inertia. In fact, some other traditional cobots using harmonic drives, have reflected inertia somewhere in the 2000X more reflected inertia than we have. So, our cobots are quite safe. And then, of course, there’s the E-STOP and other safety features that are tied into our control systems.
Are these cobots intelligent? For example, do they connect to factory automation systems and offer full traceability?
Yes. The robot in and of itself doesn’t offer full traceability; however, by connecting to the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) or the enterprise system, we’re able to share specific information about what the robot is doing. The robot typically is a client of the MES system that sends commands to the robot about what parts to pick, how to pick them, how to place them, which testers, and then details of the testing, and so forth. So, while the robots can be quite smart, we rely on the overarching coordination of the work cell to provide instruction. Additionally, the robots can report back specifically what’s happened, cycle times, etc.
As you know, we’re living in a very turbulent and ever-changing world at the moment. Tim, have you noticed a large uptick in automation with the current reshoring of manufacturing that’s taking place?
We’ve seen a fair amount of manufacturing that’s coming back to the US but also Mexico. Certainly, the geopolitical climate over the last couple of years has caused stress to the supply chain. I also think many companies are looking to move back into the United States, North America, or Europe in order to be closer to the local geography where products are needed.
Really, we’re seeing that shift all over the world, but certainly a significant amount of manufacturing is coming back to the United States and Mexico.
As these factories relocate, they’re increasing the amount of automation that they’re using due to skill shortage in the industry. So, it makes sense to be able to automate at least some of the easier work within the factory.
Exactly. Labor shortage and lack of workforce is a big issue. I think it’s becoming an issue in many geographies around the world, but certainly it’s paramount in the United States and even in Mexico. Also, we’re seeing it across industries: not just in electronics, but also in lab automation, semiconductor, and other manufacturing verticals.
Companies can’t find enough qualified people. Therefore, they’re forced to look to robots and particularly collaborative robots that can fit into the existing facility. In many cases, the robots perform some of the menial tasks that operators were doing before and freeing them to do higher value, higher level tasks.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that there’s quite a few companies using AGVs and AIVs to deliver materials to around the factory. Can your cobots communicate with these types of systems?
Yes, they can. For example, you have a fixed cobot on the end of the line and want to load materials onto a mobile robot that comes up and delivers product back to the warehouse. So those are straightforward applications, and we’re even looking at adding our cobots onto mobile robots. We have a very good configuration that works well for mobile applications. We have the most energy-efficient cobots available about one third the power of traditional cobots. We actually have numerous projects going where our robots are being deployed on top of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR), and they are going quite successfully.
That’s another interesting area. You’re known for using low energy on your cobots. How do you achieve that? Is it through the weight distribution? How does that work?
Yes, it’s a combination of the weight distribution and how we move the manipulator. Because our robots move the primary axis horizontally, keeping the reflected inertia low. Also, because of the low gear ratios, it’s very energy-efficient, so we use very little power. Of course, when you put robots on a mobile robot that’s running on battery power, every watt that you’re able to save adds to the throughput.
Absolutely. Well, it sounds like a very sophisticated system, Tim. As a global company, can you tell us about the footprint that Brooks has and what sort of servicing network is in place to back up your customers in the field?
Sure. Within the PreciseFlex product line, we design and manufacture the robots in Livermore, CA and we sell the robots through a channel of system integrators. The system integrators ultimately deliver the solution. And, in some cases, those system integrators are the first point of contact if there’s an issue, providing local support. But Brooks also has a global presence with operations around the world, 1500 employees, and hundreds of service technicians. While we offer full training and support as well as field service globally, our robots are quite reliable and do not need regular service. They have a design life of 40,000-100,000 hours and very high meantime between failure.
Great. A main objection I have heard about robots and automation is cost. Can you speak to the ROI on some of these systems?
Sure. The cost and purchase price of robots and automation equipment in general have declined, and throughput has continued to increase over time, improving the ROI. That said, the real ROI can vary greatly from days to years, depending on the application.
If customers are running two or three shifts a day, they tend to get a quite good ROI. In some cases, it’s even down to a few weeks or just a handful of months. So, ROI can be compelling, and particularly if they’re not able to find and hire enough workers, their throughput may be constrained. That changes the dynamic of the ROI as well, where it’s not all about the cost savings necessarily but about increasing factory throughput.
That is another interesting point. Sometimes people need these things very quickly. What is your lead time at the moment?
We’re running at about one third the capacity of our factory in California, so we can ramp up quickly and deliver robots typically in four to six weeks. Like everyone else, we have had some com- ponent shortages. But we’ve done a good job of managing that with purchases of certain components that we’ve projected may be difficult to find.
For anybody interested in placing robots into their factory, how do they contact you?
Simply visit www.brooks.com/cobots or email me directly at tim.derosett@ brooks.com.
Tim, thank you for speaking to us today and telling us more about Brooks Automation.
Trevor, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.