Robots enter all domains

Home, factories or hospitals are some of the environments where robots can be found

By Morand Fachot

Deployed in car manufacturing to replace workers for hazardous tasks just over 50 years ago, robots were later introduced into other domains, such as homes and medical premises to take over chores or carry out complex tasks efficiently. Robots of all sorts have improved and expanded the range of their activities significantly, thanks in great part to IEC International Standard.

Hybrid battery/solar-powered robotic lawn mower (Copyright: Husqvarna Group) Hybrid battery/solar-powered robotic lawn mower (Copyright: Husqvarna Group)

Robots: reshaping manufacturing

The first industrial robots, automated die-casting machines, were installed at a General Motors plant in the US in 1961 to take over hazardous tasks from workers.

In a logical move, they graduated from their original assignments in die-casting and welding to lifting and moving car parts for assembly. Initially the US and Japanese car industries were the main outlets for industrial robots, accounting for around 40% of the total number used in the early 1980s. The potential of robots to carry out relatively simple tasks accurately, without interruption and at a quick pace, led to their adoption in many other industrial sectors such as electronics, the food industry and handling some products.

Industrial robots gained in popularity rapidly as they allowed high productivity as well as accuracy and quality.

Huge market

According to the IFR (International Federation of Robotics), "total accumulated sales, measured since the introduction of industrial robots at the end of the 1960s, amounted to more than 2 310 000 units by the end of 2011".

In 2011, the sales of industrial robots increased by 38% to 166 028 units and the worldwide market value for robot systems (including the cost of software, peripherals and system engineering) for that year was estimated at USD 25,5 billion. The systems therefore represent a major industrial sector, which has the added benefit of increasing industrial productivity.

Contrary to widely-held assumptions robots do not destroy but create many jobs both directly and indirectly, according to a Metra Martech report for the IFR. Examining the correlation between increased robotization and declining unemployment rates in 6 countries, the report states that robots carry out work in areas that would be unsafe for humans, that would not be economically viable in a high wage economy and that would be impossible for humans.

More than a fixed one-armed machine

The first generation of industrial robots could best be described as one-armed manipulators that were installed in a permanent position and carried out simple tasks and routines. Safety represented a major issue. However, advances in robotics have enabled new characteristics to be introduced to industrial robots. They include so-called "cooperative working": the skills of human workers are combined with the precision and force that robots can provide, allowing both to work side by side without compromising workers’ safety. This, and major advances in various kinds of tactile (e.g. pressure), optical or proximity sensors make it possible to have humans and certain types of robots work side by side.

IEC SC 47E: Discrete semiconductor devices, prepares the IEC 60747 series of International Standards for semiconductor devices, which cover many sensors and improve safety. Other TCs involved in the safe operation of industrial robots include TC 44: Safety of machinery – Electrotechnical aspects, TC 17: Switchgear and controlgear, working on safety and emergency stops and switches, and TC 79: Alarm and electronic security systems.

IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery, prepares International Standards for rotating electrical machines such as drives and motors used in industrial robots. International Standards prepared by TC 22: Power electronic systems and equipment, and its SCs, are also central to components used in robot drives and other systems.

Changing industrial landscape

Ever since their introduction, industrial robots have carried out difficult and hazardous tasks. While they will continue to be irreplaceable in this role, they are also able to:

  • carry out work that would otherwise not be economically viable
  • enhance manufacturing jobs by increasing productivity, flexibility and competitiveness
  • improve process quality
  • reduce operation costs and material waste
  • improve quality of work for workers by carrying out repetitive tasks
  • improve health and safety for workers
  • reduce labour turnover and recruitment difficulties

In countries where labour costs are traditionally high, a benefit of introducing more industrial robots is inshoring: the repatriation to the local country of activities – and jobs – previously outsourced to low-wage countries.

All signs from the industry point to a healthy growth in years to come as traditional markets in North America, Europe and Asia increase or renew their assets and emerging industrialized countries equip their factories. IEC International Standards will contribute significantly to this global growth of the robotics industry

Chores made easy

For decades science fiction literature and films helped shape the general perception of domestic robots. Until fairly recently, for most people a robot in the home environment meant a machine with some human features that could stand upright, move around, communicate and carry out a variety of tasks. However, the complexity of designing and manufacturing such multipurpose android robots, not to mention their cost, meant they have remained confined to the domains of science fiction or research.

Some robotics designers and engineers saw the potential for developing cost-effective robots that could carry out a single set of tasks in the home environment. This led them to build small automated vacuum cleaners, the first of which, the Trilobite, was launched by Electrolux in 2001, with other manufacturers following shortly after. These machines, along with robotic lawn mowers, were the first to usher in robots to the home environment.

Automated vacuum cleaners and their washing peers, like their traditional counterparts, must be able to clean in tight places and on different surfaces such as hard floors and carpets. In addition the former must be able to navigate their way independently in rooms cluttered with furniture and other obstacles. They must do so safely and without damaging their environment.

The safety of cleaning robots, like that of all household appliances, is essential. IEC TC 61: Safety of household and similar electrical appliances, has prepared an International Standard which covers the safety aspects of vacuum cleaning robots.

Hard labour outside too

Domestic tasks are not limited to indoor environments. While mowing the lawn, scrubbing swimming pools or cleaning gutters may be seasonal occupations, they are nonetheless time-consuming, tedious activities, with the potential to be unsafe. Several manufacturers have developed automated machines that can work outdoors to carry out these chores.

A number of garden appliance manufacturers began launching electric robotic mowers from the mid-1990s. The latest models incorporate a number of sensors that allow them to avoid obstacles such as trees and garden furniture, to recognize boundaries and even to stop operating and return to their charging dock if it starts to rain.

Robotic domestic mowers are niche products but their sale has literally exploded in Europe, in spite of their rather hefty price. Sales were up 30% in 2012 on the previous year and are forecast to grow by as much as 20% a year over the next 5 years.

Robotic mowers are mature products that have evolved into professional areas such as golf course care or the weeding and edging of commercial sites.

A growing market

The domestic service robot industry is a highly significant and fast-expanding economic sector. The IFR estimates that 1,7 million domestic robots of all types (vacuum cleaning, lawn-mowing, window cleaning and other types), were sold in 2011 (up nearly 19% on 2010) at a total cost of about USD 454 million. The IFR projects sales of almost 11 million units for the period 2012-2015, with an estimated value of USD 4,8 billion.

The expansion of this market, which is very important to the future of the world economy, is underpinned by countless International Standards prepared by many IEC TCs and SCs and covering many components and systems central to the proper and safe operation of service robots.

Dr Robot enters the fray

The introduction of robots into the medical and healthcare environment around the world is recent and carries the obvious need to ensure safe usage for patients and medical staff alike.

New applications for robots are emerging in the medical sector. Many medical device regulatory regimes, such as the European Commission’s Medical Device Directive, classify these robots as medical equipment or medical devices.

The SCs (Subcommittees) and WGs (Working Groups) of IEC TC 62: Electrical equipment in medical practice, have been responsible for carrying out the bulk of the medical equipment standardization work required to produce the IEC 60601 family of standards. These cover the safety requirements for ME (medical electrical) equipment and MES (medical electrical systems) in current use.

No need to reinvent the wheel

Discussions centring on medical robot standardization issues took place between ISO TC 184/SC 2: Robots and robotic devices, and IEC SC 62A: Common aspects of electrical equipment used in medical practice, and demonstrated that both had a valuable role to play in the work. In April 2011, they set up JWG (Joint Working Group) 9: Medical electrical equipment and systems using robotic technology.

Combining the existing expertise of both SCs enabled the key issues to be investigated. This also allowed the medical robot standards needed to fit into the IEC 60601 family to be produced without having to start from scratch and "reinvent the wheel".

It was decided that the first step should be to develop a horizontal medical robot standard, making the link between robots and medical electrical equipment; once this had been done, the work could be followed with a variety of vertical standards for different types of medical robots.

Extensive remit, wide international participation

JWG 9’s remit is to "develop general requirements and guidance related to the safety of medical electrical equipment and systems that utilize robotic technology. The work encompasses medical applications (including aids for the disabled) covering invasive and non-invasive procedures such as surgery, rehabilitation therapy, imaging and other robots for medical diagnosis and treatment". The group started with 33 experts from 11 countries, it has now 60 experts from 16 countries.

Full workload in coming years

In spite of their high purchase prices, medical robotic systems are cost-effective as they cut some hazards (such as surgical complications, postoperative infections or bleeding) and the overall length of hospitalization. The fact that they are now being introduced in many developing countries is further proof that they are seen as making economic sense.

Transparency Market Research has estimated the global medical robotic systems market at USD 5,48 billion in 2011, with surgical robots forming the largest segment at USD 3,77 billion. It expects the market to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 12,6% from 2012 to 2018 to reach USD 13,64 billion in 2018, with the market for surgical robots worth USD 8,47 billion.

This exceptional expansion of the medical robotic market suggests a heavy workload for IEC SC 62A/JWG 9 experts for years to come.

Hybrid battery/solar-powered robotic lawn mower (Copyright: Husqvarna Group) Hybrid battery/solar-powered robotic lawn mower (Copyright: Husqvarna Group)
Robotic cell-based solutions for spot welding (Photo: KUKA Systems) Robotic cell-based solutions for spot welding (Photo: KUKA Systems)
Surgeons operating using a da Vinci Si Surgical System (Photo: ©2011 Intuitive Surgical, Inc.) Surgeons operating using a da Vinci Si Surgical System (Photo: ©2011 Intuitive Surgical, Inc.)