Robots have evolved considerably since their early development in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Looking back, and by today’s standards, many early robots were rather cumbersome machines and really only suited to basic pick and place or product handling tasks. These early generation robots generally did not have the accuracy, repeatability or speed needed for precision or fast, high-volume tasks.
As robot technology continued to develop, so too did the range of applications to which they were tasked, with the automotive industry being among the first to take advantage of robots for spot welding applications. Here, the early robots had sufficient repeatability, were capable of handling the payload of an integrated spot-welding gun, and fast enough to keep pace with production demands at the time.
Fast-forward to today, not only has the range of applications where robots play a key role expanded greatly, but there is now a wide selection of different robot types and sizes to choose from, which in turn continues to advance the potential for robots within manufacturing. (See Robot Types section)
Latest generation robots can be found operating at very high speeds – sub 1.0 second cycle times for pick and place, performing high-accuracy assembly tasks - also at high speed, manipulating MIG (metal inert gas) or TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding torches, dispensing sealant or glue, and being used in conjunction with lasers for cutting, welding and marking operations.
Robots now commonly work with other integrated technologies to provide an intelligent and responsive solution to many manufacturing tasks. In certain applications, such as machine tool loading, servicing injection moulding machines, and small assembly cells, the robot controller is now often used as the cell controller, such is the power and flexibility inherent in the latest generation systems.
By combining the speed and precision of today’s robot arms with the sophisticated communications capability of their controllers, robots are now able to perform highly complex tasks where decisions can be made on product type or variant being produced, and the operations that need to be performed.
Using technology such as machine vision enables the robot to verify that the correct part has been presented It also enables the robot to identify the part position and orientation, eliminating the need for complicated and costly component fixtures. The introduction of flexible and intelligent gripping technologies has further expanded the capabilities of robots to undertake multiple, complex operations exchanging end effectors as required for the different process steps.
Today, the use of robot and the complexity of the tasks they perform are also influenced by the development of new technologies and the use of new materials, such as the composite materials used in the manufacture of aerospace components and wind power turbine blades. Robots are being used to handle individual items, perform layup operations, and even trim and cut components using ultrasonic knives.
Also, the growing demand for electric vehicles requires automation to keep pace with the manufacture of the battery packs required to power them. Once again, robots have demonstrated their capability and flexibility by becoming an essential part of the production systems used to manufacture complete battery packs.