A different kind of workforce

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

By Antoinette Price

Smaller businesses are becoming more streamlined and competitive thanks to the development of cobots or collaborative robots, capable of working safely with humans along assembly lines.

tech-2_YuMi_cobot Yumi collaborative dual-arm robot by ABB

Automating production

Since the first robotic arm was developed in 1957 by Unimate in Sweden, industrial robots have a far greater flexibility as a result of using six electromechanically driven axes.

For the most part sensors, the devices that enable robots to perform many of their tasks, have made this possible. 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.

Improving robotics with sensors

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 worldwide. In 2013, sales hit an all-time high of around 168 000 units, up 5% from the previous year. In addition to being more competitive, SMEs can react quicker to market demands, thanks to key features including:

  • Collaborative operation – secure work alongside people without needing a safety cage, saving humans from dull or dangerous tasks
  • Safety first – if a human touches the robot whether intentionally or accidentally, it shuts 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 between USD 25 000 and 35 000 makes them viable for SMEs

Breaking new ground

Robots are moving into new areas thanks to advances being made in automated technology. They are reducing costs and making it safer for humans. Examples include:

Hospitals:The University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre is using a germ-zapping ultraviolet robot called Violet to clean patient and operating rooms. The ultraviolet C light destroys viruses and bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

High-tech tug autonomous mobile robots navigate virtual paths at the University of California San Francisco Medical Centre, carrying linens, medicines and waste. Laser, sonar and infrared sensors guide the machines. Biometric and code access features ensure correct delivery of medicines.

Dangerous disaster areas:robots can reach awkward, dangerous places and assess situations. During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a robotic vacuum cleaner removed radioactive dirt from the reactors, while a small robot searched for missing fuel rods inside the reactor sending back reports.

A Japanese-invented snake shaped robot equipped with cameras can probe narrow spaces and locate people trapped under rubble after natural disasters. Robots can also defuse bombs or mines remotely with no risk to humans.

Space: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. APF searches faster than any human could throughout the night, while employees sleep. During the day humans complete the tasks APF can’t.

Job creators or destroyers?

A report by market research company Metra Martech, states that the one million working industrial robots have directly created 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.
Machine and human work harmony results in greater employment and production and a safer, more dynamic work environment.

Robo planet earth?

The future looks bright for robots and robotics. The IRF World Robotics – Industrial Robots 2014 report states that the next two years will see an annual 12% average increase of robot installations. 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_YuMi_cobot Yumi collaborative dual-arm robot by ABB
tech-2_universal_robots_cobots New generation of cobot by Universal Robots