• Mike Talks About History of Robot Design

  • By Mike Coughlin
    July 24, 2014

    I have been asked many times, “How long will this robot last?” We’re at the 17 year mark with our original robots in the field. There are some design principles that we believe have made a difference in the reliability and serviceability of ScriptPro robots. I will describe here some features of our systems and how they compare with competitor robots.

    ScriptPro SP 200 Robot with Collating Control Center

    I sometimes state that ScriptPro robots have been designed with “aircraft quality engineering” – and that is why they have such long service lives. Here is some background on that:

    a) We went through 7 functioning prototypes before releasing the SP 200 to production in late 1997. In late 1995, when we were evaluating prototype 4, we began to focus on the fact that the robot is an inherently moving system, and it will be placed in retail stores. It will have to function reliably over long periods of time with minimal onsite technical expertise. Its primary support will come from factory technicians communicating with it from a central location. This is similar to what is expected of an airplane. We were implementing systems for factory support into our designs from the earliest prototypes.

    b) Aircraft electrical systems are highly modular so they can be changed out quickly by personnel with relatively minimal knowledge of the technical inner workings of the equipment. We built this feature into our design via the “electrical cart” which rolls in and out of the machine.

    c) But we were not satisfied with the approach to wiring. So in early 1996, I visited a company in Canada that makes wiring harnesses for airplanes. We hired the company to help us rework the wiring system so that it is built up as a set of wiring harnesses using special cables designed for the aircraft industry to hold up under constant motion. These are expensive and produced by only a few manufacturers worldwide.

    d) In contrast, when you look at the interior of one competitor robot, it does not appear to have a modular electrical system. There is point-to-point wiring throughout the machine. It is difficult to enforce manufacturing quality control for a machine designed this way. And there are likely to be reliability issues and field maintenance challenges.

    e) Another design principle is to minimize the use of control mechanisms that are potential points of failure. In particular, you want to minimize the use of sensors. Sensors are by their very nature “sensitive” and prone to maladjustment and failure over time. A certain number of them are required in order to detect, for example, the positioning of a vial to be labeled. But, where possible, it is better to design the system to use higher value and more reliable components such as encoders and switches, rather than sensors.

    f) A ScriptPro robot has (depending on the model selected) approximately 11 sensors. Our analysis of one competitor robot shows that it has at least 52 sensors. With so many sensors, there is exposure to failure and the complexities faced by field service technicians. This is compounded by the difficulties of enforcing manufacturing quality control as explained above.

    All machines, robots included, require maintenance. The ability to maintain them in reliable working order over time depends on the depth and capabilities of the maintenance organization and also their ability to work closely with the manufacturer. It also depends critically on the design of the machine.

    With ScriptPro, you have a robot that has been designed to be manufactured under tight quality control standards. It has been designed to be reliable and serviceable in much the same way as an airplane. And ScriptPro’s service organization is managed and directed by the factory and the engineers who have designed the machines and who continue to monitor their performance and need for upgrades.

    I believe this is why we have been able to maintain a fleet of robots that have provided service for up to 17 years, and why we are not projecting an end of life for any of these machines.