Robots: reshaping manufacturing

Industrial robots are redefining industry, products and working practices

By Morand Fachot

Industrial robots have been around for over 50 years. The first one, an automated die-casting machine that took over hazardous tasks from workers, was installed at a General Motors plant in the US in 1961. Industrial robots have since become much more complex and are used in a variety of other industries throughout the world. A number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) prepare International Standards for countless components and systems that are used in robots and are fundamental to their safe operation.

Industrial robot at work (Photo: ABB) Industrial robot at work (Photo: ABB)

"Anything that is manufactured is manipulated"

Robots were initially met with scepticism by managers and distrust by workers when they were first introduced to US car plants in the early 1960s, but then were gradually adopted by a number of industrialized countries to replace workers for repetitive and often hazardous tasks.

George C. Devol, the man credited with inventing the first industrial robot, gave an obvious reason for the introduction of robots in the industry: "Anything that is manufactured is manipulated. Every part is manipulated while it is made. Every part is manipulated while it is assembled. A part is manipulated when it is delivered from a plant. Everything is manipulated," he said in a 1983 interview.

In a logical move, robots 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.

Relentless march

Industrial robots gained in popularity rapidly as they allowed high productivity as well as accuracy and quality. 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". Including early robots which are no longer in service, the IFR estimates "that the total worldwide stock of operational industrial robots was at the end of 2011 in the range of 1 153 000 and 1 400 000 units".

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. Robotization should create between 700 000 and 1 million jobs in the countries concerned between 2011 and 2016, Metra Martech says.

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 represents a major issue; it is best to exclude human workers from the vicinity and to place robots into protected enclosures that cannot be entered by workers until the machines have been disabled, either actively or automatically (see e-tech article from March 2012).

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 the small-batch assembly that is characteristic of many small- and medium-sized enterprises, is now possible using the mechanism of "guiding and teaching by example" (rather than by inflexible and uneconomic programming) and major advances in various kinds of tactile (e.g. pressure), optical or proximity sensors.

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.

The powers that drive

Industrial robots may be powered by electric, pneumatic and hydraulic systems, according to the intended purpose. For instance, hydraulic machines are able to perform some heavier duty tasks. Electric robots are efficient and present benefits including easy and direct access to an energy source, using uniform and simple components and presenting no delay in transferring signals. Furthermore, they can move around when powered by batteries.

Pneumatic and hydraulic robots require another source of energy (electricity or hydrocarbons) to provide compressed air or move fluids through their components. Hydraulic fluids must be recycled and may pollute if they leak.

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

As noted by the IFR, businesses are investing heavily in industrial robots. The benefits are obvious and the impact on the global industrial landscape and international trade will be significant.

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.

The latter countries are also introducing industrial robots to improve product quality and move workers to other tasks. For example, in June 2011, Foxconn, a China-based company manufacturing computers and consumer electronics goods, decided to eliminate "monotonous, repetitive tasks" by replacing thousands of its workers with robots, each costing USD 20 000-25 000. Foxconn had installed 30 000 such robots by the end of 2012 and plans to have fully automated plants in 5-10 years.

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.

Industrial robot at work (Photo: ABB) Industrial robot at work (Photo: ABB)
Baxter, "the robot with common sense" (Photo: rethink robotics) Baxter, "the robot with common sense" (Photo: rethink robotics)
Robotic cell-based solutions for spot welding (Photo: KUKA Systems) Robotic cell-based solutions for spot welding (Photo: KUKA Systems)