Embracing cage-free colleagues

A new breed of robot is extending the benefits of automated industry to smaller manufacturers

By Antoinette Price

Advances in the development of cobots or collaborative robots, capable of working safely with humans along assembly lines, is paving the way for smaller businesses to become more streamlined and competitive.

Yumi collaborative dual-arm robot by ABB

Automating production

Industrial robots have come a long way since the first robotic arm was developed in 1957 by Unimate in Sweden and used in the world’s first production line at General Motors, New Jersey, USA.

The next five decades saw many innovations which broadened the robots’ repertoire from sequencing, stacking, painting and spot welding to machines offering far greater flexibility as a result of using six electromechanically-driven axes. Robots equipped with dynamic vision sensors could move objects, while touch and force-sensing capabilities enabled them to guide pins into holes at one pin per second. The advent of the dual arm robot facilitated working with much smaller parts, and a robot able to pick up a record 120 objects/min was developed.

Sensory machines

Sensors are the devices that enable robots to perform many of the tasks they undertake. In some of the most cutting-edge robots, embedded sensors allow the machines to feel their way and place parts into a fixture or recognize and adjust to subtle changes while they work, just as humans do.

IEC standardization and conformity assessment contribute significantly to this technology. Manufacturers can build more reliable, efficient and safe sensors and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) thanks to International Standards prepared by IEC Technical Committee (TC) 47: Semiconductor devices and IEC Subcommittee (SC) 47F: Microelectromechanical systems.

A number of other IEC TCs prepare International Standards connected with specific areas of automated industry, including IEC TC 65: Industrial-process measurement, control and automation; IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery; IEC TC 17: Switchgear and controlgear; IEC TC 22: Power electronic systems and equipment; IEC TC 44: Safety of machinery - Electrotechnical aspects, and IEC TC 66: Safety of measuring, control and laboratory equipment.

Manufacturing game changers

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), more than 1,1 million industrial robots work in factories around the world. In 2013 robot sales hit a global high, with a 12% increase, in the same year that China became the biggest market for robots with a 20% share of the total supply. Traditionally, industrial robots have served the automobile and electronics industries, although dual arm robots are being used increasingly in a number of small and medium enterprise (SME) sectors and are entering new global regions. In Brazil, for example, greater production capacity in the automotive industry has accelerated the pace of robot installations.

In some countries such as the US, these dextrous machines are changing the face of industrial automation as their use increases. In addition to being more competitive, SMEs can react quicker to market demands, thanks to key features including:

  • Collaborative operation – working securely alongside people without the need for a safety cage and saving humans from carrying out dull or dangerous tasks
  • Safety first – human touch shuts the robot down automatically, thanks to sensors
  • Easy, intuitive programming – "teach mode" programming means anyone who can use a smart phone or tablet can get the robot working with little training
  • Portability – relatively lightweight and compact robots adapt to their workspace, require less space and can be moved easily along the assembly process
  • Low cost – a price tag of between USD 25-35 000 makes them viable for SMEs

Hospital roving robots

Robots are moving into new areas thanks to advances being made in automated technology.

At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, a germ-zapping ultraviolet robot called Violet cleans patients and operating rooms after conventional cleaning by staff. Delivered in three five-minute cycles, ultraviolet C light destroys strong viruses and bacteria superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing that 1 in 25 patients got some kind of infection during their hospital stay, prompted the USD 75 000 investment.

High-tech tug autonomous mobile robots navigate virtual paths at the University of California San Francisco, carrying linens, medicines and waste and cutting down on workplace injuries and costs. Laser, sonar and infrared sensors guide the 25 machines. Medicine delivery carts have biometric and code access features to ensure they go to the correct place. The robots need to charge for a minimum of four hours.

Going where humans can't

Robots can reach awkward, dangerous places and assess situations. During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, a robotic vacuum cleaner removed radioactive dirt from the reactors, while a small robot went inside a reactor to look for missing fuel rods, from where it sent back a report. A Japanese-invented snake shaped robot with cameras can probe narrow spaces and locate people trapped under rubble after natural disasters, and robots can defuse bombs or mines remotely with no risk to humans.

Out of this world robotics

Robotics technology involves the design, construction, operation, and application of robots, and the robots rely upon computer systems for control, sensory feedback, and information processing. The technology is increasingly being incorporated into other devices, although this is not always recognized. The Lick Observatory in California, US, uses the Automatic Planet Finder (APF), a 2,4-metre automated telescope and enclosure and a high-resolution spectrograph to comb the solar system robotically for new planets in a way that people cannot. While speeding up the search for planets which could support human life, the technology also saves employees from sleepless nights and allows them to do the tasks APF can’t.

Cars represent a further example of the wide applicability of the technology with their rapid progression to full automation as we head towards a driverless world.

Job creators or destroyers?

So are robots taking our jobs? Populations have always experienced times of job insecurity. Recessions, cheaper labour, depleting energy sources and evolving life styles are some of the reasons certain job sectors come under threat.

A report by market research company Metra Martech, which focuses on Brazil, China, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea and the US, states that the one million industrial robots in operation have been responsible for directly creating close to three million jobs worldwide. They are expected to add to this in industries including consumer electronics, food, solar and wind power, advanced battery manufacturing and shipbuilding. The report reveals that manufacturing is stronger in countries that continue to invest in robots, such as Germany, where the number of people employed in the automotive industry has increased.

In cases where robots have taken unsafe, repetitive tasks off humans, the latter have been given more responsibility and better paid jobs managing the robots. Machines and humans work in harmony, each doing what it excels at, resulting in greater employment and production and in a safer and more dynamic work environment.

Robo planet earth?

The future looks bright for robots and robotics, which are constantly improving and broadening their scope of application. The World Robotics – Industrial Robots 2014 report compiled by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) says the next two years will see a 12% average increase of robot installations per year. Modernization of production facilities, human-machine collaboration, growing consumer markets requiring greater production capacity and the technological evolution of robotics are factors contributing to this expected growth.

tech-2_baxter Baxter by Rethink Robots
tech-2_universal_robots_cobots New generation of cobot by Universal Robots
tech-2_YuMi_cobot Yumi collaborative dual-arm robot by ABB