The role of the robot continues to offer big benefits for manufacturers according to exhibitors at the upcoming Industrial Automation North America 2016. The trade show, co-located at IMTS from September 12–17, 2016, at McCormick Place in Chicago, will feature high interest robotics topics such as collaborative learning, core isolation and even setting standards.
Robots continue to take the manufacturing world by storm. According to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), robotics orders set new records of 14 percent growth in 2015 as North American companies placed orders valued at $1.8 billion. By 2018, there will be 1.3 million industrial robots operating in factories around the world according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).
Rapid advances in robotics continue to drive this interest. Today’s robots are lightweight, highly flexible, and easy to implement. Robots can weld, assemble, handle materials and even package food. Lower costs add to the benefits, offering new opportunities for manufacturers of all sizes.
Top Robotics Trends—Sensing, Core Splitting
More sophisticated technology has enabled smarter robots that can collaboratively learn and sense what is going on around them. “Collaborative robots are going strong and you will see a larger role in force sensing and control,” said Steve Somes, president, Force Robots. “Responding to external forces not only makes robots safer for collaboration, it also enables more tasks like assembly, grinding and deburring.”
“Automation needs to move from teach-based to intent-based, meaning we communicate tasks and the robot and machines figure out how to make them happen,” said Will Sobel, CEO, System Insights. “It seems scarier and more futuristic than it is. Robots simply need to perform dynamic path planning with vision and sensors instead of static instructions.”
Another trend in robot controls, core isolation or core “splitting” in multi-core CPUs, has been made possible through advancements in PC-based control software. According to Matt Prellwitz, drive technology application specialist, Beckhoff Automation, this means that the machine controller can serve “double duty” as the robot controller, a trend that has dramatically increased efficiency and reduced costs.
“The increase in multi-core CPU power and the ability to implement core isolation enables software engineers to run, for example, kinematics on one processor core and spread functions across other cores, such as PLC, motion control and HMI software,” said Prellwitz. “The Windows operating system (OS) on these PC-based controllers can also receive its own core. That means all machine and robot control functionality can run independently of the OS, which helps elevate performance and pushes kinematic applications to an exciting new level.”
Standards Critical to Safe Movement
Standards also play a key role in robotics success, safely enabling movements between locations and even allowing one or more robots to interact with the same set of equipment. “This can be handled using discovery and interaction-based location models coupled with systems for scanning an environment to learn collision domains and object placement,” said Sobel. “Semantic models for discovery and location enable robots to be used on mobile platforms when combined with limitations on velocity and force feedback without the need for security cages.”
“Through the open standards available, PC-based control enables greater integration of robots into enterprise systems and cloud-based services for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 style concepts,” said Prellwitz. “Technology like mobile device integration can also be used so plant specialists can receive push notifications and the ability to scale the HMI for the machine and robot to ‘any piece of glass,’ from smartphones to tablets. It can even lead to highly advanced manufacturing and assembly methodologies, such as object-oriented manufacturing.”
Robots and Employee Motivation
By taking advantage of these robotics advancements to manage mundane tasks, manufacturers also gain the benefit of motivating employees with more interesting responsibilities.
“By taking away the monotonous and repetitive tasks, manufacturers can elevate their workforce, more fully engaging them in the production process. It is hard for workers to stay motivated if they feel like ‘cogs in the wheel,’” said Somes.
“We can better utilize the talent we have when robots handle the more mundane work,” adds Sobel. “There will be some processes that we cannot automate. But when we increase productivity through robots without impacting the workforce, we can move to a more efficient and larger manufacturing base.”
Important Advice—Force Control, Safety
Robots do have their limitations. Due to their mechanics, conventional robots have difficulty with fine resolution force control. “If control of force is needed for more than safety or manual guidance, manufacturers should look to new lightweight designs that either incorporate direct joint torque measurement (like Baxter, KUKA iiwa, and ABB Yumi) or have direct-drive style actuation like our Touch Robot,” said Somes.
And employee safety should always remain a concern. Even though some collaborative robots have removed the need for safety screens, Somes recommends that manufacturers stay mindful of possible additional protections needed for humans with any automation.
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