We spoke with several robot manufacturers to get their thoughts on where the industry is headed and what new things to watch for.
Where industrial robots have been
Over the past several years, there’s been a trend of more small- and mid-sized companies adopting robot technology—not to mention a reshoring angle to the industry, said John Bubnikovich, VP, Sales and Marketing – Robots and Applications, ABB Inc.
“With easier programming, small- and mid-sized companies are finding that increased productivity and efficiency are easier to attain without needing to hire an army of robot engineers to operate the robots,” he said. “With the cost of labor in low-labor-cost countries increasing, robot automation is achieving production costs that are on par [with them]. Coupled with the cost of poor quality and long lead times that often come with long distance, low-labor-cost production, robotic automation is helping bring production of many product categories back to the United States.”
Scott Mabie, General Manager, Americas Division, Universal Robots, noted that the market for industrial robots has expanded tremendously with collaborative robots paving the way.
“With their ease-of-use, fast payback and redeployability, robots lower the automation barrier significantly by placing robotics within reach of even small operations that up until now viewed robotics as too costly and complex.”
Bubnikovich said that robotics in general industrial applications—basically everything outside of automotive—is growing strongly at a 10% compound annual growth rate. Small parts assembly applications such as electronics are one high growth area and food application uses still have a good deal of upside potential, too.
Coming next for robotics
Human-robot collaboration will be the hot trend over the next few years. The emergence of robots working in very close collaboration with humans in areas like electronic products assembly and other small parts assembly applications will be key.
“ABB’s YuMi collaborative robot can operate in very close collaboration with humans, thanks to its inherently safe design,” said Bubnikovich. “It has a lightweight—yet rigid—magnesium skeleton covered with a floating plastic casing wrapped in soft padding to absorb impacts. YuMi is also compact, with human dimensions and human movements, and has advance sensor technology that stops the robot immediately if it comes in contact with anything.”
Mabie noted that robots are moving out of their cages and are increasingly being integrated in applications where employees work side-by-side with the robots–or cobots as they’re now being dubbed.
Even when we’re not collaborating with them, they’ll be closer. Dan Dibbern, Product Marketing Manager–Robotics & Linear Motors, Omron, said that mobile robotics will become more popular in the future.
“Moving away from automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that are required to follow a specific path, instead Autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs) will be able to travel throughout a plant floor freely,” Dibbern said.
Plus, robots are becoming far easier to program—removing a barrier that smaller- and medium-sizes companies faced previously.
“Offline robotic programming software like ABB’s RobotStudio allows users to program robot systems with a simulation function that reduces programming complexity and creates an intuitive human machine interface for production operation,” Bubnikovich said.
So what’s most important to robot customers today? While pricing, delivery and safety are highly important, buyers in recent years seem interested in establishing a more intimate relationship with their robotic suppliers. This, explains Bubnikovich, helps end users better understand how to maximize the benefits of robotic automation for their specific market.
And Mabie said that high mix/low volume production has increasingly become the norm as the market demands a higher degree of product customization with manufacturers struggling to meet this challenge.
“90% of physical tasks performed in production environments today can’t be practically or economically automated with conventional robots unable to adapt to real-world variability in the workspace or operate effectively in semi-structured environments,” he said. “This is especially prevalent in the SME sector, where small business owners are facing overseas competition, but at the same time finding it hard to justify automation solutions that will take years to pay back.”
Universal Robots’ answer to that, Mabie said, is addressed by their lightweight, user-friendly robot arms that can quickly be redeployed between ever-changing tasks in agile production environments. The average payback period, he said, is only 195 days, whereas with traditional robots, the capital costs for the robots themselves may account for only 25 to 30% of the total system costs, due to programming, setup, and dedicated, shielded work cells.
Meanwhile, ABB is trying to stay closer to its customers. The company announced last year that it was opening a new robotics plant at its facility in Auburn Hills, Mich. Bubnikovich said this makes it the first global industrial robotics company to fully commit and invest in a North American robotics manufacturing footprint.
Growth and future in robotic applications
Bubnikovich thinks that small parts assembly, especially in the electronics industry, will be a very big growth market, especially with the emergence of collaborative robots—but automotive manufacturing will still be king for now.
“The automotive industry typically represents slightly more than half of all robot activity in North America in a given year, so it will continue to be a major driver of growth in industrial robots,” he said.
Mabie feels that in terms of vertical markets, there is a lot of opportunity, including in the machining sector, which continues to be a big demand driver.
“Now we’re seeing new markets open up and unexpected applications appear,” he said. “Our robots are in applications that receive a 3D laser scan of people’s feet and cut out customized flip flops. The robots are being tested in agriculture spraying iodine on cow utters before milking, they assemble thermal cups and work as camera men, increasingly handle injection molding machines, and feed CNC machines milling dental crowns and medical devices. We’re also seeing a lot of interest from the electronics manufacturing sector where our cobots perform tasks such as life cycle testing and epoxy filling in circuit boards.”
A BCG Research study from last year predicts that by 2025, adoption of advanced robots will boost productivity by up to 30% in many industries, as well as lower total labor costs by 18% or more in the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan, and Germany. Bubnikovich believes that the robotics industry is in the beginning stages of leading a fundamental, yet revolutionary change in the industrial and commercial landscape.
“It will spur growth through increased productivity and efficiency, while creating more rewarding and safer job opportunities for an expanding number of global workers,” he said.