The future of robotics is bright. In the manufacturing world, we are moving increasingly towards fully-automated production lines. As technology advances and the ROI on the use of industrial robots becomes startlingly clear, a production landscape in which manufacturing activities and material flows are handled entirely automatically is becoming commonplace.
With a huge range of value-adding benefits, the future of industrial robots on the production line will open the doors to automation in areas that have, until now, been unsuitable for robots.
Clearly, things will become increasingly automated as time goes on. But what can we expect in the short term?
Along with the faster production offered by industrial robots comes a long sought-after benefit: the ability to free human workers from the dangers and drudgery of manual work. Human workers can be elevated to roles where their individual skills and cognitive abilities can be utilised. What’s more, robots work out to be a cheaper option: not only do they not need breaks, they also don’t need to be paid wages!
Equally, from a business perspective, the future of robots will improve quality by eliminating the human error factor and reducing variability in product output.
Robotic engineers were once rare and highly sought-after. However, the education system is adapting to the future workplace that we can expect as automation continues. As the school kids of today become the workforce of tomorrow, individuals with the skills necessary to design, install, operate and maintain robotic systems will become more plentiful. And as the technology itself advances, the task of actually programming these robots will become easier and cheaper too.
Robots working alongside people
Automated safety systems, whilst freeing human workers from dangerous aspects of the production line, will mean that robots can take up new positions alongside human colleagues.
Working alongside robots is, in itself, risky for human workers right now. But the robotic systems that are emerging, with sophisticated sensor technology, are able to prevent the robot from colliding with humans, slowing down or altering its path to avoid them.
In factories where robots are currently used, human workers are separated from the front line by safety fences and interlocks to prevent injury. Safer robots mean these barriers can be omitted, saving costs. When humans and robots can physically work side by side, productivity can increase.
Easier integration of automated production systems
In order for any robot to run, it needs accompanying software to tell it what to do. More sophisticated software development techniques are the main contributors to the rising automation capabilities we can expect from the future of robots.
Both software and networking technologies have hastened the ability to assemble, install and maintain robots quickly and cheaply. Plug and play technologies have replaced the individual wiring of sensors and actuators required in the past. Now, simple network wiring takes the labour out of assembling and preparing automated systems for use.
The new level of automation we are seeing in manufacturing also requires less human interference in terms of monitoring and maintenance. The sensors and actuators that are now being introduced are able to monitor themselves and report their own status to a central control system. Thus, data can be collected over time, allowing maintenance staff to remotely monitor performance and only step in for maintenance where necessary.
Network technologies make it possible to link individual robots to wider production systems, creating a factory where machines can actively communicate with each other across the production line.
Low volume production
Not every factory creates hundreds of thousands of products. Until now, it’s been hard to justify the use of robots for companies working with small batch sizes, or those with significant product variety.
The future of robots will see much more flexibility of tasks; robotic machines can be programmed quickly and easily, reducing the number of times the robot will have to repeat a given task before its cost is justified. Basically, robots of the future can be reprogrammed to complete new tasks as required, rather than being replaced when a new product is released.
Along with ease of reprogramming as new products are released, advances in AI and sensor technology will allow robots to handle a greater degree of variability from task to task. They will be able to adapt their actions to meet changes in their environment, creating an increased range of automation opportunities in areas where actions are heavily variable from part to part.
Future robotic systems will, for example, be able to alter the force they use to assemble two parts based on the dimensional differences between them, or even select and combine different sized components autonomously to achieve the correct final dimensions.
Robots at present can control their movements to within 0.10mm, and some of the most sophisticated configurations have a repeatable accuracy of a staggering 0.02mm. The future of industrial robots will see precision to an even higher degree.
The ability to handle increasingly delicate tasks, such as assembling intricate electronic devices or even threading a needle, will be the norm. Along with precision robots, coordination is getting better too.
Sensor technologies, and the computer power required to analyse data from those sensors, are also advancing, so much so that we can expect robots with the precision to cut gemstones - a task previously reserved for only the most skilled craftspeople.
While the events of 2020 may have slowed advancement in automation and put our predictions for the year on the back burner, work is continuing apace to hasten implementation in coming years. The future of robots means a transformation to a cheaper, smarter and more adaptable production line in all areas of manufacturing.
There is a wealth of opportunity available to companies which take early steps to implement automation. However, to attain the full value of implementation, a systematic and holistic approach is recommended. Yes, automation should be a firm part of your forward-thinking strategy, but it is important to ensure that the automation strategy you implement aligns with the current and future needs of your organisation.