Factories in the U.S. and other manufacturing countries are preparing for the influx of lower priced, better and easier to program robotics to integrate into their manufacturing processes. The current growth rate of robotic factory implementation is somewhere around 3% per year. In the next couple of years, the growth rate is predicted to be 10% per year according to the global consulting company, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). By the year 2025, the BCG predicts that approximately 1,200,000 new robots will make their way to factories in the United States.
Factors Driving Industrial Robotics
Driving the new factory robotics trend are better manufacturing techniques, easier programming methods, improved robotic gripping and vision sensors, and more affordable robotic components in general. These factors are expected to dramatically reduce the price of factory robotics and their implementation, making them more reachable to a larger number of manufacturing companies and processes.
As an example to the above, the cost to deploy an advanced robotic spot welder has dropped significantly from $182,000 in 2005 to $133,000 in 2014. The price is expected to drop another 22% by the year 2025.
The BCG says that the main manufacturing industries affected will be the transportation sector (autos and trucks), appliances, computers along with consumer and industrial electronics and electrical equipment.
Many experts in the field believe that by as early as the year 2029 robots will reach the level of human intelligence. They also believe that up to one third of jobs will be replaced by robots. Gone are the days where robots were considered for such jobs as spot welding automobiles and doing only dirty, dull and dangerous work. Today’s and tomorrow’s robotics are poised to significantly affect almost all industries. Even fields that typically don’t elicit the consideration of robotic inclusion.
Using robots to replace employees is expected to result in a manufacturing workforce that’s 22% smaller than it would have been without robots by the year 2025. But the payrolls of these factories are still expected to increase due to increased economic demand and the new trend of manufacturing companies reversing their previous decades-long practice of sending jobs offshore. Many large and small companies are engaged in returning these jobs back to America.
Robots in Medicine
One such example of new industry usage of robotics is where they have been unleashed in the medical industry for a multitude of applications. It all started in the year 2000 when the FDA approved the Vinci Surgical Assistant System which is used for remote surgery purposes. Since then, tiny magnetic microbots are being used to scrape plaque from arteries and improve ocular conditions. Doctors use personal medical assistant robots to help care for patients in hospitals. Additional robotic devices such as the Bestic Arm help disabled individuals eat. While robots like Toyota’s Healthcare Assistant help others to walk again.
The Autonomous Vehicle
Essentially, the autonomous self-driving car introduced by Google is more of a robot than a car. Capable of advanced decision, making in critical life-sustaining situations, these robots utilize artificial intelligence, sensors, GPS, along with radar, lidar and computer vision techniques to safely maneuver on public streets without an operator.
Given rapid robotics advancements and increased deployment, the vision of a jobless future seems very possible. But history tells a different story as in the industrial revolution. Many experts back then believed modern factories of the day would displace workers. As it turned out, the jobs that were replaced simply gave-way to more advanced and diverse employment opportunities exhibiting a net-zero job loss or even job gain.
Industrial Robotics Arms
The robotic arm is used for most factory industrial work today. They are used extensively for welding, placing parts and painting operations. As of this writing, a typical 6 axis robotic arm made by a company called Fanuc may cost approximately $50,000 to $70,000. This does not include deploying the arm which adds additional amounts for programming and the tools used by the robot. This could easily add another $200,000 to the total deployment cost. In these situations, the actual robot itself doesn’t account for the majority of the entire deployment amount. These additional costs and time factors for programming must be strongly considered when replacing workers with robotics.
Easier Programming Methods
Many companies are hesitant to change from conventional CNC machines to robotics due to programming the expense and time-intensive nature of robots. A recent glimmer of hope come from advances in robot programming techniques from a company called Robotmaster. This company has vey innovatively found a way to utilize CAD/CAM software files to directly program and reprogram robots eliminating the high time and cost intensive programming phase for deployment. Robotmaster’s system seamlessly integrate programming, simulation and program generation to any CAD/CAM platform. Manufacturers can program robots quickly and efficiently now with these new generation tools. This recent development significantly contributes to the potential to spur growth of robotics in factories around the world.
Types of Industrial Robots and Robotic Companies
In most cases an industrial robot consists of a single articulating arm devoted to a specific repetitive process. There are many types and manufacturers designed for various factory manufacturing processes and tasks. This may include welding, painting, palletizing, material handling and assembly. The type of robot used depends on the job it needs to perform, its movement, precision and safety concerns. As most robots are very fast and strong lacking the ability to safely work around humans, most currently require protective cages and/or other safety measures in order to limit possible human injury. However, a new breed of robot is emerging that can safely work around humans called the collaborative industrial robot.
As of this writing Adept Technology is the largest robot company in America. They lead the world with the most common industrial robot known as the SCARA. This acronym stands for Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm. The SCARA is a single arm device that is commonly called a “pick and place” robot. Extreme precision is obtained by the use of three joints in the horizontal plane allowing it to be accurately positioned and oriented parallel to the plane. It also incorporates a linear joint for z positioning.
A Cartesian or linear robot is an industrial robot that moves in three directions using linear slides and motors. These robots move only in straight lines along specified points or coordinates rather than rotate as a conventional robot. Think of a graph or plotter that moves in “x” and “y” coordinates and a “z” axis representing the “up/down” direction. A typical application of this type of robot would be a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. These are used for milling and drawing where a router or pen moves across an x-y plane as a tool is raised and lowered onto a surface to create a precision template or drawing.
Six Axis and Redundant Robots
Six axis robots allow for the full movement of their tool in a given position. As the name implies, they have 6 axis of movement to include 3 translations and 3 orientations. Redundant robots can utilize a tool in a specified position in various postures or attitudes. This can be compared to an actual human arm’s movement where the shoulder and elbow joints allow for many different attitudes or positioning of the arm while maintaining a tool in a given position.
Dual Arm Robots
Certain processes require the use of dual arms that work collaboratively together for a given purpose much like a human worker. These are typically called dual arm robots. Both arms can work together, yet perform separate processes on a specified piece. An example of a dual arm robot in operation would have one arm picking up and holding a component while the other arm uses a tool to perform a specified operation on the component such as drilling or milling. After the process is completed on the component, the first arm would place the component in a designated receptacle and then once again pick-up another piece for work by the second arm again.
Serial and Parallel (Spider) Robot Types
There are two sub categories or types of industrial robots, serial and parallel. Serial robots are comprised of a single arm with a series of joints and links along the arm from the base part of the robot to the end where the working tool is held and the tool’s movement controlled. Parallel industrial robots, otherwise known as spider robots consist of a base with multiple arms that work in parallel with each other on a common tool at the end of the arms to perform a singular job. These are usually used for assembly work and found extensively in circuit board assembly processes where the component such as an integrated circuit is inserted into a circuit board that moves below on an assembly line. The arms work collaboratively together in a more limited space to perform a given job. They will usually have less overall movement and are used in more restricted working areas along an assembly line. Think of both of your hands holding a drill motor or other tool thereby adding more limitation to your area of work. Parallel robots typically have greater acceleration due to the fact that the actuators all sit at the base and don’t need to be moved.
Industrial Robot Manufacturers
Larger industrial robotic companies make a wider range of robots, while the smaller companies produce more limited and specialized robots designed for specific purposes. Some popular brands of industrial robot manufacturers include Adept Technology, Yaskawa, Kuka, and ABB, Fanuc, Motoman, Denso, Comau, Kawasaki and OTC Daihen.
The automation world is changing fast and robots will play an increasing part in factory production and processes of the 21st century. It’s important for manufacturing managers and engineers to keep up with the latest in