What are robot transfer units?

June 12, 2024
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An intro to robot transfer units

Robot transfer units, or RTUs, are industrial machines used to automatically move materials between workstations. 

RTUs are often not limited to just material transfer but are also used to move robotic arms or other equipment along a linear track, enhancing the robot’s reach and flexibility in various applications. They pick up parts, components, or finished goods and transfer them to the next point in an assembly line or manufacturing process.

Key components and features of robot transfer units

An RTU primarily consists of the following:

  • Track or rail system: This provides the pathway for the robot to move along. It can be linear or curved, depending on the application.
  • Carriage: This is the platform on which the robot is mounted. It moves along the track or rail system, allowing the robot to access different points in the workspace.

While an RTU itself does not include a robotic arm or end-effector, here are other essential components that work in conjunction with the RTU:

  • A robotic arm provides the necessary reach and flexibility to manipulate objects. It is typically mounted on the carriage and can move in multiple axes.
  • The end-effector is the component that physically handles the parts. It can be a mechanical gripper, magnetic plate, or vacuum gripper, depending on the type of part. The robotic arm provides mobility and degrees of freedom, allowing the end-effector to manipulate parts in multiple axes.
  • The control system coordinates the movements of the robotic arm and end-effector. It can be programmed to move parts through a predetermined path repeatedly with a high degree of accuracy and speed. Some RTUs have sensors and vision systems that give feedback to automatically adjust the path or grip of the end-effector.
  • RTUs are highly customizable and can be fitted with different robotic arms, end-effectors, and control systems depending on the needs of the application. They can handle payloads ranging from a few ounces to over 1,000 pounds with repeatability of 0.1 millimeters or less.

How do robot transfer units work?

Basically, RTUS shuffle materials around along a guided path. 

Here’s how they work: 

  • Moving around: RTUs move along a track, typically in a linear or predefined path set by their rails. 
  • Loading and unloading: RTUs are equipped with mechanical arms to lift and move materials. Vacuum pads, grippers, or clamps grasp onto the loads to lift and transport them. Once the RTU reaches its destination, it lowers the load onto a platform or conveyor where workers can access it. Some RTUs can also stack materials or place them directly into machines.
  • Programming paths: Before operating, engineers program the RTU with the paths it should follow using a teach pendant or programming software. The paths are tested to ensure the RTU can navigate accurately and avoid obstacles while loading, unloading, and stacking. Operators can then start, stop, and monitor the RTU during production.

Common applications

Robot transfer units are rocking out in manufacturing environments where repetitive, precise movements are super necessary. 

You'll find RTUs hard at work in many industries:

The auto industry

RTUs are heavily present on auto assembly lines. They lift and move components like engines, transmissions, and axles to workers at each stage of assembly. They can maneuver the heavy parts into tight spaces, which allows for highly efficient production lines.

A greener world

Robotic transport units (RTUs) are changing the agricultural sector quickly, particularly in large-scale farming operations. They can automate tasks like transporting harvested crops, moving supplies and equipment, and even helping out in planting and seeding processes.

Their ability to navigate challenging terrain and work autonomously makes them a valuable tool for increasing efficiency — and reducing labor costs in modern agriculture.

The warehouse shuffle

In large warehouses and distribution centers, RTUs shuttle pallets and containers to and from storage locations up to 30 feet high. They can lift heavy loads at various heights, which vastly improves warehouse productivity and space usage 

Some warehouses have fleets of hundreds of RTUs operating 24/7.

Robots for a healthier you

Even in healthcare, RTUs have found an important role. They’re used to move, sort, and store medical supplies, linens, and waste in hospitals and clinics. Some hospital RTUs can lift and reposition patients to aid caregivers.

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What are the benefits of robot transfer units?

Robot transfer units have quite a few advantages: 

  • Ultra-high productivity: RTUs significantly boost productivity in manufacturing facilities. They can move materials faster and more efficiently than human workers. RTUs operate continuously without breaks, so they maximize uptime. They also follow the same precise paths and motions with each cycle, reducing wasted movement.
  • Lower costs: RTUs reduce labor costs since they automate the loading and unloading process. They also improve quality by handling materials consistently and gently, which cuts down on damage and waste. RTUs have a long lifetime, often 10-15 years, so although the initial investment may be high, the long-term costs are relatively low.
  • Much better safety: Using RTUs enhances workplace safety. They minimize the risk of injury to human workers from repetitive movements, heavy lifting, and operating dangerous equipment. RTUs can also access confined spaces and handle hazardous materials that may not be suitable for humans.

Challenges of robot transfer units

While robot transfer units solve many problems on the factory floor, they also present some difficulties:

  • They’re not precisely a bargain. RTUs are expensive, often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The initial capital investment can be a barrier for some companies. However, RTUs often pay for themselves over time (1 to 3 years) through increased productivity and reduced waste.
  • Programming them is not easy. Programming RTUs requires specialized knowledge that can be hard to find. It may take extensive training to get engineers up to speed. The programming itself also requires meticulous attention to detail to ensure safe and efficient operation.
  • You still have to be careful. Proper safeguards like light curtains, emergency stops, and protective fencing are essential. Operators and technicians also need quite a lot of training to avoid injury.
  • Lots of maintenance. RTUs have many moving mechanical parts, electronics, and software components that require ongoing maintenance to function properly. This maintenance adds to the overall cost of using RTUs and can reduce productivity if you don’t manage them completely. 

How to integrate robot transfer units into existing systems

Integrating RTUs into your current factory setup may seem like a tall order, but don’t worry, we have some tips to help you out. 

Let’s take a look: 

  • First, think about what tasks you need the RTU to perform and the payload capacity you’re going to need. This will guide you in selecting the proper RTU model for your needs. You'll also want to assess your current infrastructure to identify any upgrades needed to power and control the RTU.
  • Make sure you have adequate floor space for the RTU to maneuver and handle any equipment it will interact with. Ensure the floor can bear the weight load. You may need to install new power sources, control panels, or charging stations. Plan the RTU's path of motion and make any necessary changes to optimize traffic flow.
  • Put proper safeguards in place to avoid collisions or accidents. Install sensors, emergency stop buttons, and physical barriers. Create restricted areas for the RTU and train employees on safety procedures. You'll also want to connect the RTU to your building's fire alarm system so that it will automatically shut down in an emergency.
  • Once you’re done with the install, thoroughly test the RTU to ensure proper functioning before putting it into service. Check that all components including the manipulator, end-of-arm tooling, sensors, controllers, and software are working as intended. Make any final adjustments to optimize performance. Remember to provide training for your employees! 
  • Monitor the RTU's performance and make upgrades over time to improve productivity, reduce costs, or improve safety. With regular maintenance and periodic overhauls, an RTU can provide many years of useful service.

Summing up

In summary, a robot transfer unit is a super-efficient machine that can move parts and products around your manufacturing lines and warehouses safely. With a bit of planning, RTUs could be ideal for your operations. Just be sure to work closely with suppliers and integrators to integrate them smoothly. 

At the end of the day, robot transfer units let you put automation to work for you in clever, innovative ways. 

Next steps

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  • Safety-first collaboration: RO1 is designed with your team's safety in mind, incorporating advanced machine vision and state-of-the-art sensors.

Contact our team today to arrange a complimentary 30-day trial and receive expert guidance tailored to your specific needs as you integrate RO1 into your operations.

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