Off-line Programming (OLP) is a method of programming robots outside of the robotic cell, in what they call "off-line". The main benefits of OLP is that the robot is still operating from the previous program while a new program is being edited. This means that while the engineer is able to program a new part or even streamline the current program, the robot is still functioning and producing parts the same way as it has been. Using OLP, the engineer is able to visualize most, if not all, aspects of how the robot will function in real life through the software. This includes:
- Collision detection
- Material usage
- Layup time
- Waste estimation
So now you know the benefits of OLP, but which software provider should you select to incorporate company wide?
To answer this question, there are a few things you need to determine beforehand.
According to researchers "selecting the right solution is an exhausting process for companies. Improper selection may result in wrong strategic decisions with subsequent economic loss to the organization."
This doesn't just apply to financial implications, but also personnel attitude towards the company.
The way to make the right selection, as with solving any engineering problem, is by asking the right questions. For the purpose of this article, we are going to take the viewpoint of implementing an ATL/AFP process, which requires an OLP software to reap the full benefits.
What are my short and long term needs?
In other words, what do I need the software to do upon installation, and what might I need it to do as my company develops and improves its offerings? What robotic ecosystem are you currently using? Are you satisfied with it? Do you plan on staying with that ecosystem in the future?
It is important to determine long term plans, as not all OLP supports every robotic language. Some of the larger tape laying system suppliers have exclusive contracts with robot manufacturers, forcing their customers to enter a specific robotic ecosystem. This makes cell installation much simpler, as it comes all as a singular package. But if that ecosystem isn't what the company is used to, there will be a steep learning curve, delaying operations even longer.
How is their support service? How long will they support me?
How often have you tried calling tech support for an issue? How long has it taken to even get ahold of anyone, never mind the appropriate person. In a production environment where your company depends on consistent operation, you don't have time to waste finding the appropriate service help.
Some entry-level OLP softwares offer a low level of support, or none if it is open sourced. You need to trust that your OLP supplier is able to support you when you run into any sort of issue.
You also want to make sure you know how long their support lasts. Sometimes a single purchase will provide lifetime support for updates, other times you will need to signup for regular updates at an additional cost.
Do they have a strong community?
Even with the best tech support available, I often find myself browsing forums with users of the software in question, as they have oftentimes run into similar issues and have found ways to bypass, or even fix, the issue you are having.
Communities can take different forms, whether it's dedicated forums, video updates on new releases, or even just a constant social media presence. You need to make sure that if the company isn't available right when you need them, you have the best chance of finding the answer elsewhere.
Does it integrate with my current processes and needs?
The ideal situation is you purchase an OLP software that seamlessly fits right where it needs to without additional installations and engineer downtime. Most OLP software functions with a plugin on top of any one of many available CAD programs. This ensures that you don't have to change the CAD system of your entire company, just to incorporate this one change.
While it may not be possible, other than coincidence, that the OLP software is a direct plugin to your current CAD system, you want it to be as painless as possible to move models from one to the other.
What is the total cost?
As with every business decision, it is important to determine the ROI, and a primary portion of this is the cost of product acquisition. Does it make sense to make this purchase? Will it set my company back financially? Will I be profitable while using this OLP?
It is important to see if the company lists the OLP prices on their website, and what is included with each option. Many OLP software providers make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find their prices online. Some will even require you to make additional purchases for specific add-ons (ie welding, 3d printing, machining, etc.) making the overall cost add up quickly.
How do I know it's right for me?
The best way to determine whether or not this is what you need is by trying it out. You can watch all the videos you want on it, but you can't get a feel for it until you sit in the drivers seat.