In a crowded back room at AUTOMATICA 2014 in Munich, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) sponsored a panel of prominent robot users explaining their needs to a panel of executives representing the major robot manufacturers.
The panel was moderating by Ken Fouhy of VDI Nachrichten, a German newspaper and web portal for technology news in the EU. The two robot users were Stefan Baginski representing BMW and Dr. Chia Day from Foxconn; the robot executives were Manfred Gundel from KUKA, Olaf Kramm from Fanuc, Stefan Lampa from ABB, Manfred Stern from Yaskawa and Jiegao Wang, from Estun Robotics.
The dialogue was spirited, direct, and kept on point by the moderator. It was particularly informative on three topics:
FOXCONN AND THE MILLION ROBOTS
Dr. Day, VP and GM of Foxconn's Shenzhen facilities, described in careful detail where robots are needed in their factories, what tasks they need to do, what hurdles there are, and, to some extent, what they are doing in-house. Their most immediate need is in core tasks associated with electronics assembly such as machining, polishing, painting, laser welding, die casting, palletizing and inspections. Automated assembly will come later he said. He described the major difference between an auto company and a consumer product manufacturer: the length of time production "lines" stay in play; car company lines often last for 7 years while most electronic production lines change yearly or more often. Hence the need for flexibility in deployment, cost efficiency, and ease of programming and re-programming.
Dr Day said that Foxconn has grown to 1.2 million workers and the logistics, turnover and ancillary problems and activities involved with that massive workforce had prompted Foxconn's Chairman Terry Gou to say that Foxconn would deploy 1 million robots to help reduce and control the numbers, manage the problems better while increasing quality, and eliminate the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks that contributed to labor problems in the past.
He suggested that the media was more interested in the few instances of labor troubles than in the amazing technologies, capabilities and components the company provided and offered; that the media often incorrectly reported non-stories. For example, the flurry of stories about Google and Foxconn having an "agreement to cooperate" was unknown to him. He read more about it in the press than he heard about it from within Foxconn.
When queried about the fact that Foxconn has a line of robots that it manufactures, he explained that Foxbots were for internal use only and for material handling, for tool and die making, and for integrating from more costly purchased systems. They decided to make Foxbots solely for economic reasons. He also said that right now Foxconn utilized about 50,000 "traditional" robots, had an additional 50,000 automation devices that might be called robots, and about 500,000 not-robotic but intelligent automation devices mostly of its own creation. "Surprisingly forthright comments from a very interesting proponent of automated manufacturing," said moderator Ken Fouhy.
BMW MAY INCREASE THEIR ROBOT POPULATION IF...
BMW's Stefan Baginski talked about BMW's experimenting with collaborative robots, particularly the ones from Universal Robots, for assembly and other tasks not previously robotized but that are ergonomically challenging for their employees. Thus far the human-robot interaction at their Spartanburg plant in South Carolina, and resulting productivity enhancement, has been successful and, if it continues, Baginski can foresee increasing BMW's present robot population of 7,500 by a third to 10,000 within the next 3 years.
All the robot makers talked of co-robots and the issues involved but few had actual products for sale such as the ones from Universal Robots, particularly at Universal's low price point ($30,000).
One fascinating question was whether the makers used human-robot-interaction robotics in their own manufacturing process. They all use robots to make robots. ABB said that they used their 2-armed FRIDA robot internally but for experimental purposes only; Olaf Kramm from Fanuc said:
“We have three times more robots in our production than humans. That’s the difference – we are able to provide high-quality sophisticated robots beyond automotive and general industry for the same price level that the others do when they produce in China,”
CHINA, CRIA AND CHINA-MADE ROBOTS
China has become the largest buyer of robotics buying one in five robots sold in 2013, a total of 36,560, according to the IFR. Rising wages, government stimulus, and growing competition from other emerging economies have been the drivers and 60% of the demand has come from the auto industry. There's lots of room for this growth to continue: China had just 23 robots for every 10,000 people employed in manufacturing compared with 396 in Korea, 332 in Japan and 273 in Germany. Their brochure showing members of CRIA (China Robot Industry Alliance) was a hot take-away from their booth at AUTOMATICA.
Wang Jiegao, from China’s Estun Robotics, said:
“Labour costs are rising [in China] so there are a large number of enterprises that need automation. The challenge is to do that for small and medium-sized enterprises . . . as they have limited money for investment.”
Hence the reason why robot manufacturers all over the world are focused on making their newer robots easier to program, operate, maintain, and that they be able to collaborate with humans. This slide from the presentation describes it well: