The Production Game-Changer

Robot suppliers are enhancing current equipment and creating effective tools to simplify robotic automation, supporting the needs small- to medium-sized enterprises. Image courtesy nVenia.

Robot Controller Programming Simplifies Automation

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

A critical component for increasing efficiency and improving quality for optimal profitability, robotic automation continues to permeate manufacturing and warehousing operations. This is especially true for assembly, picking, packing, palletizing, part transfer and machine tending tasks.

More affordable, versatile and agile robots are being integrated across the high-mix, low-production industrial landscape. Propelling this trend is the greater adoption of digital technologies, along with advances in data acquisition, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. So much so, the global material handling robot market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.0% between 2024 and 2032 according to Straits Research.1

Over the last decade, the uptick for robotic handling has been greatly facilitated by standard programming environments that eliminate the need for proprietary languages. A huge confidence booster, this technology allows operators to easily oversee robots and their surrounding components through dedicated Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs), while allowing engineering departments to lean on their understanding of common motion control platforms or Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) solutions.

Designed for speed, durability and cost-savings, palletizing workcells are often a smart choice for robot controller programming. Image courtesy of Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division.

A Simplified Version of Robotic Automation

Not only do these platforms help to ease robot setup through simplified communications, but also, they can provide complete control of multiple mechanisms including industrial robots, servo systems and variable frequency drives. While this user-friendly approach to automation empowers manufacturers to tackle dynamic packaging needs that distributors, retailers and consumers often have, it is not an ideal option for all businesses.

To keep up with the pace of change and maintain fluid operations, more small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are looking for a more simplified version of robotic automation. To accommodate these organizational and operational initiatives, robot suppliers are enhancing current equipment and creating effective tools to support the needed requirements.

For material handling, a growing option for the control of multiple robots and devices – instead of PLC usage – is the utilization of robot controllers as a budget-friendly platform for small or less complex workcells that are often used in packaging operations for fab shops and consumer goods manufacturers.

Providing the same basic structure as PLC programming, robot controller programming (RCP) uses robust software to edit ladder logic for full workcell control. Moreover, the use of this software, along with an intelligent teach pendant and intuitive interface panel, offers a similar experience of a fully customizable PLC interface. And, similar to a PLC, basic operator control can be granted via the teach pendant’s interface panel, while engineering staff can opt for the full pendant capability or connect a PC to the controller for editing control.

Robot pendant interface panels allow fully customizable and branded machine control. Image courtesy of Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division.

Pros of Robot Controller Programming

Programmed via a PC or robot teach pendant, robot controller programming (RCP) vs. PLC control has its advantages. While motives will vary from one company to the next, common reasons and benefits for the shift to complete device control via RCP include:

Tight budget constraints: The cost savings provided by using a robot controller for complete device management can be considerable – as each Programmable Logic Controller and Human Machine Interface typically costs several thousand dollars. If a dedicated safety PLC is required, that adds to the overall cost as well. Foregoing the purchase of a PLC can save $4-10k on average, which can be a large savings for a workcell that may come in at as low as $60-150k.

Less programming complexity: PLCs are extremely helpful in reducing complexity, but for some operations, this may not be simple enough. A robot controller requires fewer components yet offers similar functionality, making it an ideal choice for select operations. While the traditional method would entail both PLC and robot programming, a single robot controller can now effectively perform the PLC programming. This also serves to lower the robot programming learning curve.

Reduced lead time: While Human Machine Interfaces are generally available, Programmable Logic Controllers have had sparse availability since the pandemic. This tacks on lead time when ordering a system that may turn some businesses away from taking the robotics leap. Similarly, select HMI models may be harder to acquire than others, adding to the integration wait time.

Robot controller options for interface assembly provide discrete I/O options for various cell components in the place of PLC cabinets. (Tophat-mounted assembly shown). Image courtesy of Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division.

Features of Robot Controller Programming

While offerings may slightly differ from one robot supplier to the next, robot controller programming comes standard (from the teach pendant) on select robot brands and offers a variety of beneficial features:

  • Robot controller options for interface assembly provide discrete I/O options for various cell components in the place of PLC cabinets. (Tophat-mounted assembly shown). Image courtesy of Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division.

    Sufficient Internal Input and Output (I/O) relays, power supplies and discrete options adequately support a full workcell without the need of a PLC

  • Functional Safety Unit (FSU) and machine safety board offer enough control for a full workcell’s safety rated contacts, eliminating the need for a dedicated safety PLC
  • Software platforms, such as Ladder Editor, allow user-created logic and I/O monitoring – similar to that found with most PLCs
  • Tablet-style pendants enable intelligent pendant interface panels which permit users to develop customized, branded and full-color interactive HMIs with a variety of buttons, status monitors, interactive switches, private branding, images and definable text boxes that can be mapped to various values in jobs, or other variables or strings
  • Standard pendant interface panels allow for basic HMI control, status lights and operation
  • Interface panels may also be automatically launched when the controller is powered on, effectively becoming the primary interface for floor-level employees, while only maintenance or engineering staff can access the system menus
  • I/O jogging (and other options) may be enabled by incorporating I/O control with buttons or switches on the interface panel
  • External axes, cameras or other components may be controlled and/or monitored on the interface panel
  • Most industrial networks are supported

Selecting the Right Programming Fit

While the application being performed greatly impacts the type of programming selected, robot controller programming provides a cost-effective and efficient method for companies looking for the same basic structure that PLC programming offers. For SMEs considering the use of robotic automation for basic handling, machine tending and dispensing tasks, RCP may be the right choice.

Overall, simple workcells and robotic systems that opt to utilize robot controller programming can get the benefits of lower cost, less complexity, and faster delivery upon ordering. This is extremely important for SMEs looking to minimize integration time while staying competitive. More appealing, perhaps, is the variety of packaging options for necessary hardware that exist. From door-mounted assembly and tophat to lower enclosure and DIN-rail mounted assembly, robot controller programming has the potential to be a production game-changer.

About the Author

Chris Caldwell is Product Manager at Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division where he is responsible for product planning and execution throughout the product life cycle. With nearly 20 years of experience in manufacturing and operations, he has worked in every corner of organizations to provide exceptional products and services. Learn more at


1Material Handling Robot Market Size, Share & Trends, Straits Research, 2024

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