We spoke with IFR members to hear their views on the most promising trends in robots. Here’s what we heard.
Robots get smarter
Rapid developments in 3D vision systems and software algorithms are increasing the range of tasks robots are able to perform autonomously. One example is bin picking, a complex operation which requires a robot to be able to identify and pick a single part out of a bin of either similar or dissimilar parts. The target part may be entirely or partially covered by others. Once the part has been found, the robot’s software processes data to determine how to reach it, calculating the proper orientation for the effector (hand or other gripping mechanism). Sensors in the gripper feed data to the robot’s software that sends code back to the robot to enable it to pick up the object without damaging it by either exerting too much pressure, or too little so that the object slips.
Over the next 10 years, robots will increasingly be able to assess and respond appropriately to their environment, thanks to developments in semantic intelligence. For example, the robot will recognise whether an object in front of it is a human or a machine. It will be able to recognise the person’s intended move – for example heading towards a door - and will then replan its path accordingly. We can also expect to see further developments in speech and gesture recognition, enabling robots to respond appropriately to workers and the general public. It’s important to note that while robots will increasingly be able to make their own decisions on how best to perform a certain task, a hard-coded layer of instructions – such as stop if any object is nearer than 10cm – will always take precedence, ensuring human safety.
Robots enable flexible production
Manufacturers and logistics providers are under increasing pressure to produce and ship smaller, customized orders in short timeframes. Many are automating the production process to be able to respond more efficiently to new orders. Some are also restructuring production and logistics, moving from linear production and logistics lines to a series of standard production cells which can be rapidly reconfigured to the task at hand. Automotive manufacturers are the major driving force behind these trends, but we can expect adoption in other manufacturing and logistics sectors in the future as well.
As we note in our recent information paper, ‘How Connected Robots are Transforming Manufacturing’, manufacturers are automating production lines by connecting the machines – including robots – to each other and to software such as computer aided design and enterprise resource planning systems. The production process can be automatically triggered by a completed product design, or an order entry.
In such a non-linear production layout, a collection of small production cells can be rapidly reconfigured to perform parts of a production process. Autonomous mobile robots carry materials and parts between the cells and can activate the machines in the cells as well as carry out some tasks themselves. Using 3D vision software, mobile robots will in the future be able to run quality control checks on parts as they transport them, ensuring quality control is done on the fly versus at the end of the run, minimising waste and reducing costs. In logistics, autonomous mobile robots and other machines such as autonomous forklifts transport goods through the packaging process, and picking robots select and pack goods from conveyors.
Robots enter new markets
A combination of the new functionality described above and lower set-up costs are driving robot adoption in industry sectors and smaller companies that have not yet automated.
In addition to a boom in logistics robots, the IFR tracks increased robot adoption in manufacturing sectors such as food production and pharmaceuticals, as well as adoption in service sectors such as healthcare and retail.
Small and mid-sized manufacturers (SMEs) form the backbone of most manufacturing economies, but many have been slow to automate. A number of developments are changing this. First, robots are now easier to program and re-task, throught intuitive interfaces and demonstration. Second, the new generation of collaborative robots can easily be integrated into existing production processes alongside workers – versus replanning the whole production line for automation. Finally, Robots as a Service business models, in which companies lease rather than buy a robot, remove the need for initial capital outlay, making it even more attractive for smaller manufacturers to take the initial step towards robotization.
Robots enable resilient supply chains
The US-China trade war, the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit have all raised awareness of the rigid nature of global supply chains. Robots enable manufacturers to build resilience into their supply chains. For example, collaborative robots that work alongside humans and can be quickly re-tasked can be used to enable production in peak order periods, when most manufacturers find it difficult to ramp up staff. Robots also assist in meeting social distancing requirements in factories. Finally, robot adoption makes local production a more viable option economically, giving manufacturers in developed economies greater flexibility in adjusting supply chains in response to global shocks.
Reduced carbon footprint
Robots contribute to lowering the overall carbon footprint of manufacturing by minimising material waste and enabling manufacturers to optimise space – and thus the energy associated with lighting and heating. As noted above, robots are an enabler of shorter supply chains which can contribute to a lower footprint. Robots are also themselves increasingly energy efficient. For example, they are increasingly made from lighter, composite materials and using energy-efficient engines and gears with reduced frictional losses. Many have energy-saving modes when in stand-by, as well as energy-efficient control and drive technologies. Improved motion path planning and mapping of acceleration and motion to the required tact time also reduces the energy needed to execute tasks. The end of service life also is increasingly in the focus. Robots typically have long lifespans, which can be even extended nowadays, and after that, refurbishing and recycling are two options.
Picture: © OMRON