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Megatrends in Manufacturing Automation, Part 2: Advanced Industrial Robots
Industrial robots are among the most promising technologies for increasing manufacturing automation. They offer great flexibility due to their three or more axes of movement and the ability to be reprogrammed and repurposed. Furthermore, they are very dependable, extremely precise, and now with the increase in computing power can make a sense of their surroundings. They could be used in many industrial applications such as palletizing, arc or spot welding, material handling, machine tending, assembly, pick and place, painting, milling, deburring, 3D printing, and much more.
Although industrial robots are machines like any other, they have always captivated the human imagination because of their elegance, speed, power, and precision. They have become a symbol of high-tech manufacturing. You can read more about industrial robots and their advantages and disadvantages on our website.
Historic development of industrial robots
The first industrial robots have appeared in the 1960s. The first real growth spurt in the USA occurred as automotive manufacturers automated their weld shops. A second growth spurt appeared in the 2010s due to increased technical capabilities and lower prices. The industrial robots’ price has decreased by more than 50% since the 1990s.
Due to collaboration between the state and Japanese robot manufacturer FANUC, industrial robots were first adopted in the 1980s. In 1983 a factory called “Beroe” in Stara Zagora was opened. It was delivering approximately 80% of all industrial robots and manipulators in the Soviet bloc. The production ended in 1990 with the fall of the Soviet bloc. The use of modern industrial robots has experienced significant growth in the last 10 years, due to increased technological usefulness, lower robot costs, increased ROI, and foreign direct investment in new manufacturing facilities.
Current development of the industrial robots’ market
The stock of industrial robots in Bulgaria and worldwide
In 2019, there were 2.7 million stand-alone industrial robots installed worldwide. The global stock of robots has increased by 373 240 units in 2019 and the expected growth is 12% per year. The average robot density in the manufacturing industry in Europe was 114 units per 10,000 employees in 2019.
There are no detailed statistics on Bulgaria, but the country is currently among the least robotized countries in the EU. One of the main reasons is that there are still no OEM car factories in the country. Traditionally the automotive sector is the biggest user of robots in the other European states. Most probably as of 2020, there are approximately 1000 to 2000 installed and functional industrial robots in Bulgaria.
Drivers of the market growth
McKinsey & Company has published an excellent report on the robotics market and we recommend you to have a look at it for in-depth information. The growth of the industrial robots’ market has been primarily driven by:
- An increasing variety of models – A larger variety of robots enables new applications. From the first electrical 5 axis, microprocessor-controlled robot in 1974 the number of models has increased to more than 300 models today. Furthermore, robots have become larger and can handle heavier loads due to an exponential growth of payload from 6 kg to 2,300 kg. They also feature more axes and require fewer controllers. In some cases, more than 30 axes can be synchronized by one controller.
- Greater technical abilities – Greater precision enables new applications and safer use. For example, working alongside humans to automate tasks that could previously not be automated. Mobility is another technical advancement, opening the area of intralogistics automation to robotics applications.
- Increasing labour costs – As the cost of manufacturing labour is rising, the payback for robotics is becoming ever more attractive. This is not just valid in the industrial countries (e.g., 24% rise in manufacturing labour costs in the US since 1990) but also in traditionally low-cost countries such as China or India. Bulgaria is not an exception as labour costs in the manufacturing sector doubled since 2010.
- Accessible talent – While robotics engineers were once rare and expensive specialists, people with the skills required to design, install, operate, and maintain robotic production systems are becoming more widely available. This observation is also valid for Bulgaria, even though the local market is in its early phases of development.
- Ease of integration – Advances in computing power, software development techniques, and networking technologies have made assembling, installing, and maintaining robot cells faster and less costly than before.
New trends in industrial robotics
If robots could do more complex “smart” tasks and their integration is faster and cheaper, they will be used by even more companies. The general expectations in the industry are that there will be three main areas of improvement over the next decade – adaptability, ease of programming, and ease of integration. Those are usually grouped together as advanced robotics.
Adaptability: major limitation in the use of industrial robots
Adaptability is the ability of robots to make sense of the surrounding environment and to adapt their activities accordingly. Despite the great advancements in the field of robotics and continuous efforts to make robots more and more sophisticated to match the capabilities of human beings, they are still far less adaptable and intelligent than humans.
Creative and knowledge-based jobs are less susceptible to automation. This is also true for jobs that involve physical labor, but take place in unpredictable environments. We rely on human ingenuity and our ability to learn and adapt without being trained for every possible scenario. For example, a manager can order a worker who is drilling to transfer to a new working station that is painting, packaging, or polishing. The relocation and learning of the new task will happen fairly easily and fast. The reason is that learning new things comes naturally to humans.
That is not the case with robots. First, they are restricted by the reach of their arm, the functions of their tools the availability of sensors, etc. Even more important is the fact that robots are not able to act any different from what they are programmed to do. Furthermore, robots still need a predictable and very well-structured inflow of inputs (e.g., boxes, parts, or other materials). Even the most advanced robotic systems of today that use AI algorithms and machine learning to train themselves are far less adaptable than humans.
Adaptability: new advancements in robotics
Nevertheless, the advances in machine vision and other smart sensors, advanced grippers, and machine learning applications will increase the adaptability of robots. This will allow robots to adapt their functions and behavior to changes in external conditions. This will allow them to work in more unstructured environments. An interesting example comes from FedEx that has managed to implement robots in an area that a few years ago was impossible – robot pickers in the warehouse. This is a very difficult task for a robot because the work is very messy and unstructured. Check out this video that will tell you more about the increasing adaptability of robots:
The increase in adaptability will also enable more applications in which robots work safely alongside humans. When collaborative robots are equipped with advanced embedded vision systems and versatile grippers, the addition of machine learning creates a highly complex and capable robotic system. Furthermore, it could increase interactivity when working alongside humans. When humans and collaborative robots begin to work on more complex tasks together, communication will become necessary. Collaborative robots could be built to recognize certain voice commands or hand gestures, avoiding the need to reprogram, causing downtime in the middle of a project.
Another restriction of industrial robots is their inability to move. This is also changing as robots can now make a better sense of their environment and move safely around, performing useful tasks. The most interesting examples in this area come from the company Boston Dynamic and their various models of robots:
The practical application of those robots may be still limited. However, this will surely change in the coming years as robots start performing more “smart” tasks on their own.
Ease of programming: another major barrier for industrial robots use
Industrial robots were originally developed to serve automotive body manufacturers. Cars are produced in high volume, and because the products are so similar (low-mix) the same robot program can be used for several years. This means car manufacturers can amortize the cost of their custom system integration over the high number of cars made. Moreover, in this context, reliability, speed, and precision are more important than ease of use and simplicity of programming. Many robots on the market today were optimized with these constraints in mind.
Ease of programming: simplification of programming and offline programming
Now, there is an increasing interest to adopt robotics from industries that have high-mix and low volume production. Ease of programming is of paramount importance for the faster and cheaper initial integration and improved maintenance and re-programming over its life-cycle.
There are two major trends in this direction. First of all, the robot manufacturers are simplifying the programming of their robots. Today, most industrial robots are programmed in the same way that they used to be in the 1980s. Engineers do it through an online touch pendant and the use of functions in a proprietary programming language. However, this has been changing, especially in the collaborative robot market where the programming has been simplified and made accessible even for non-programmers. For example, the new FANUC CRX collaborative robots have a touchscreen tablet with a drag and drop programming interface, which makes it easier to create and adjust programs. We expect to see this trend of programming simplification in the more conservative industrial robots segment as well.
Second, there are increasingly powerful offline robot programming applications that allow you to create your robot application first in the digital world by using CAD models, before applying it in the real world. This allows for the automation of the programming of many different applications faster and with less downtime. However, still, a major limitation of this way of programming comes from deviations between a CAD model and the physical world. With the increased adaptability of robots, offline robot programming applications will become more useful. You can read more on the topic of offline programming in this article.
Ease of integration of industrial robots
There is a lot of non-value-added work in the robotics deployment due to the lack of standards across the highly fragmented robotics industry. Each robot maker has its own unique controller and operating system (OS). And they each support different communication protocols, which in many cases is not free to use. There is no single dominant OS on the market and no single vendor dominates more than 15% of the industry. As a result, there is a technical challenge of integrating technologies that were never meant to work together. And the challenge of coordinating different vendors and project stakeholders.
We expect that this situation will improve over the next decade. First of all, there are already attempts in the industry to develop OPC UA (Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture) information model for robotics communication. This will simplify the communication with the robots and their integration with other applications and devices such as PLC, SCADA, MES, IIoT or ERP.
Furthermore, with the increased adoption of robotic applications, there will be an increasing interest in simplifying the integration and maintenance of the robots. Many companies have accumulated robots from different vendors over the years and maintaining them is very expensive and challenging. Each vendor has its own proprietary controller and software and having experts that understand and support each and every brand equally well is difficult. One solution would be to have a common operating system for all robot brands and there are already options available. There is an open-source initiative called the Robot Operating System (ROS) and an increasing number of start-ups that offer robot OS that is independent of the robot vendors.
In a messy physical world Integration of industrial robots will remain complex
We do not know whether they will come to dominate the market in the same way as Windows or Android did in the computer and smart-phone market, as there are many unique barriers in the robotic market. It is very likely that the market will remain fragmented. However, the market will surely put pressure on the robot vendors to open-up their software and make it easier to integrate and maintain.
However, unlike computers, which deal with digital information, robots must deal with the physical world as well. The information world is clean as it is made of zeros and ones. The analog world is messy as it has infinite variability. So even if robots had standardized hardware, communication protocols, and software, the fact is that the world around them can never be standardized. So long as robot programs must be customized to handle real-world objects, robot deployment will remain complex.
Summary: advanced robotics will transform industrial operations
The development of adaptability, ease of programming, and integration will give rise to what is termed advanced robotics. Advanced robotics systems will transform industrial operations. Compared with conventional robots, advanced robots have а superior perception, integrability, adaptability, and mobility. These improvements permit faster setup, commissioning, and reconfiguration, as well as more efficient and stable operations. The cost of this sophisticated equipment will decline as prices for sensors and computing power decrease, and as software increasingly replaces hardware as the primary driver of functionality. Taken together, these improvements mean that advanced robots will be able to perform many more tasks more economically than the previous generation of automated systems.
 Lean Robotics, Samuel Bouchard