The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Industrial Robots in Manufacturing
- Industrial robots are perfect for manufacturing jobs that are dirty, dangerous, or dull—or require the kind of precision only robots can achieve.
- Certain industrial robots can be adapted to any purpose, from automated assembly lines to precision apple picking.
- Although robots consistently provide increased productivity and safety, they can also add unforeseen costs due to upkeep and systems-compatibility issues.
There are three main reasons to use industrial robots in your manufacturing business: dirty, dangerous, and dull. These seem negative but are work types perfectly suited to robots, and as industrialization continues on a bigger scale, robots will be even more critical to manufacturing.
But you could also add “detailed” as the fourth “D” of robotics. The precision manufacturing needed to produce high volumes of consistent designs can be done only by robotics that can perform precise movements countless times without getting bored or tired.
Automation vs. Robotics
It’s natural to think of robots and automation as inextricably linked, but even though there’s a lot of crossover, they are not the same.
Automation is the use of software, equipment, or technology to perform tasks that would otherwise be done by a human. Think of a traffic-management engine that automatically routes work to the appropriate department or staff member, setting up the necessary files and assets to perform it.
Robotics comprises machinery that uses sensors and actuators to interact with the world and perform autonomous or semiautonomous actions that are often exactly the same every time.
Robots are multipurpose. The software that drives them is reprogrammable, and different effectors can be affixed to their articulated or moving parts to perform different tasks—for example, swapping a magnetic gripper with a suction cap or a welding torch.
However, automation and robotics are intertwined: Both represent the era of Industry 4.0, blurring the lines between the physical and the digital and enabling embedded connectivity and multiuse functions.
Types of Industrial Robots
Here’s a brief introduction to common types of robots and what they do:
1. Linear Robots
For repetitive, highly precise needs such as assembly lines, linear robots usually complete one piece of the puzzle over and over as products enter their area.
Linear robots have a small number of axes that move back and forth in a straight line along one plane of movement, like the human knee or elbow. When these are coupled with another joint (like the wrist or shoulder), they can complete a simple movement through several axes. With no rotating axes, linear robots are most suited to automated tasks.
Selective compliance assembly robot arm (or SCARA) has a parallel axis joint layout, which means the arm is slightly compliant in the x-axis and y-axis but rigid in the z-axis (hence “selective”). SCARA’s two-link layout mimics the articulation of the human arm, which gives it the unique ability to do its work and then retract or fold out of the way.
Think of a robot arm that tightens a hard-to reach screw; arranges objects into a large stack in a warehouse; or drifts around a shipwreck, carefully opening apertures or picking up objects for the camera.
3. Articulated Robots
A step beyond SCARA, articulated robots have multiple joints and planes of motion. At the simpler end, an articulated robot arm might have two joints between three rigid lengths, allowing movement in any direction. SCARA can also include spherical robots, usually with one linear joint and two rotary joints, giving them a spherical work envelope.
At the other extreme, the popular image of humanlike robots is a classic example because they need multiple articulated joints of every conceivable style (pivot, hinge, ball and socket, et cetera) to move and behave like people.
But until the age of humanoid robot helpers arrives, articulated robots are useful for welding, material processing, assembling, picking and placing, packing, and countless other applications.
4. Cylindrical Robots
Cylindrical robots stand on a rotating base or pedestal with an arm attachment moving both up and down the body and extending in and out, often called a “prismatic” junction.
Think of the machine at the airport that shrink-wraps your luggage: Its arm attachment applies the clinging plastic as it moves up and down the main body, making sure your case is completely covered. In a factory, a cylindrical robot might pick something from one conveyor or station, lift it and rotate it to lower it into another.
5. Delta Robots
Something of a rarity in industrial robotics, the delta robot is positioned over the top of the work area and named for the Greek letter it resembles: an upside-down triangle.
The power and driver unit sports three arms, often far more delicate than larger, heavier industrial robots in the common imagination. It drives them with precision and speed (due to their lighter mass). The effector is able to work in light and repetitive applications like pharmaceuticals, food, cosmetics, or retail packaging.
Because robots are often heavy industrial machines, they are traditionally kept separate from human operators because of safety risks.
But this is the beginning of a new era of human-robot collaboration. Better body design, lightweight or softer materials, and improved sensor technology mean robots are safer to have around. Not only that, smart algorithms can train a robot to work directly with a human, executing tasks in response to those performed by its human collaborator.
The Benefits of Using Industrial Robots in Manufacturing
The upside that will really sell robotics to your board or C-suite is the proven improvements to the bottom line. Recent studies (PDF) about smart factory innovations have revealed a 10% increase in production output, 11% in capacity usage, and 12% in labor productivity.
The Power of Data
Every aspect of a connected manufacturing business has the means to collect data about processes and outputs, and every modern manufacturer should be collecting and interrogating it. If you can measure it, after all, you can improve it.
Because they’re at the place where the actual work is done, robots are a critical piece of the data puzzle, reporting on performance, maintenance, and more before a human could ever spot the opportunity for improvement—changes that might have only been detected after a production run of poorly made products.
Smartly processing that data does the work for you. After the data has been collected, big data workflows can automate analysis and review what needs improvement and what to report directly to human controllers.
The research is in: Robots won’t actually usurp humans in the workplace. Instead, they’ll assist human manufacturing staff to produce more with the same resources.
Robot safety grew out of the risk-management field, saving humans from the dirty, dangerous, and dull work and making workplaces safer. Happier and safer people, given the best tools to do their work, create an intangible (but real) effect on productivity.
To compete in today’s global economy, robots are moving firmly into the “must-have” category for manufacturers. In 2015, the Chinese government set out a plan to fortify the country as the world’s manufacturing powerhouse by improving product quality through greater automation, which includes increasing the number of robots made from 150,000 in 2020 to 400,000 in 2030.
It’s no different in industry. Between 2012 and 2017, industrial robots increased by an average of 10% every year, with 4.4 million units worldwide expected by 2023.
Challenges to Widespread Industrial Robotics Adoption
Before you assume robotics is an easy investment, slow down. They’re expensive. It’s a big industry with a lot of standards and varying quality. Get your manufacturing-robot deployment wrong, and it could cost much more than it makes. Here are some of the potential pitfalls.
The price tag isn’t the end of it, often representing only a small fraction of the total integration costs. In fact, the new normal is something like the consumer printer or razor market, where the device is dirt-cheap and the consumables (new blades or toner cartridges) cost a premium.
Even when your robot is up to speed, small changes to a manufacturing line might require further expenditures to update its effectors or tasks, in addition to the revenue lost while the entire assembly line is waiting.
The industry is maturing but is still something of a Wild West regarding standards. Even if you find the perfect robot for your task, you might discover it uses an operating system or communications protocol your factory doesn’t have—which could add to your integration costs.
Some manufacturers zealously guard their underlying programming and software as intellectual property whereas some (often smaller start-ups) use inexpensive or open-source systems that are easier to repurpose but often aren’t as robust. The choice can sometimes be between flexibility and stability, which both offer pluses and minuses.
After taking integration and maintenance into account, a Boston Consulting Group report found that you need to multiply the cost of your robot by three or four for the true return-on-investment figure (four to five times if it will need extensive overhauls like the addition of conveyors or auxiliary machinery).
If you pay five factory assembly-line workers $30,000 per year, that’s $150,000 per year, but installing a robot will not eliminate human labor from the process. Estimates say a post-installation robot will cost not 0% of your current labor costs; it will cost 25%. The price of a robot will never be completely net zero because of ongoing costs to keep it running.
A Flexible Approach
What if you buy a robot for a specific task, but your workflow shifts? How quickly can robots become obsolete? There’s no easy answer. Current robotic technology can’t be repurposed on a dime, and depending on how critical it is to the process, it might hold up everything else (and impose further delays, translated as costs).
Add to that the human expertise necessary to repurpose robots. Sometimes it’s as simple as switching effectors, but it might also require a whole reprogramming effort—expertise many factory-line workers don’t yet have as the industry finds its feet.
Examples of Innovative Industrial Robots
Nevertheless, robots can do some amazing things—in some cases proving that they’re uniquely suited to areas long thought of as the human domain. Here are just a few applications:
Industrial Polishing Made Easy
The surface of a manufactured part is often crucial to its operation, and whether it’s glossy, flat, shiny, or matte can vastly change its effectiveness. From rubbing with sandpaper to laser etching, polishing has always been an intensely human activity because it’s often assessed by looking and touching. The notion of “shiny enough” means nothing to a robot driven by the computerized values of mathematics.
The challenge of a robot doing the same work is that it needs to move through countless points of motion, adjusting the angle of approach, speed, and force for each specific task. But that challenge hasn’t stopped Symplexity, a European collaboration between academia and industry, from building a surface-finishing robot.
The hoary old claim computers can’t make art has some merit when you consider the limitations of industrial robots in the free-form elements of architecture like domes and parabolas.
Danish firm Odico is changing that assumption with a robotic manufacturing system using a bendable heated blade and foam blocks to make casting molds for the most eye-catching and outlandish shapes architects can dream up.
Human-robot collaboration is one of the most exciting innovations to come out of robotics yet. Robots and humans coexisting creates a whole new robotics sector: lightweight, speed-controlled robots designed to work alongside people.
There’s the example of the Tokyo hotel staffed entirely by robots, but did you know that it actually created more work for humans because of constant malfunctions and complaints? But with a rapidly aging population and not enough caregivers to go around, Japan isn’t the only country experimenting with robot bartenders and restaurant waitstaff—and it might be the pointy end of the spear to usher cobots into industrial manufacturing.
The Farm Factory
A professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California, Davis, recently said the need for robotics in farming is “immediate.” Labor shortages were already affecting the agriculture industry to an unprecedented degree a year ago.
Clearly, with so much work to be done picking and processing and not enough people to do it, agriculture itself is ripe for the picking when it comes to industrial robots.
Several schemes are in place around the world, including a robot at Oregon State University that can tell the difference between the “good” and “bad” pick of an apple and an Australian robot called Eve that finds the apple and applies a suction cap to twist it off.
The Future With Industrial Robots
The popular image of an industrial robot—a huge, lumbering, oily articulated arm that welds car doors in showers of sparks—is a bit of a 1960s anachronism. Today, robots take as many shapes and sizes as there are manufacturing tasks that need to be done.
And with everything from worker and skills shortages to improved material science and digitization of the factory floor creating more demands and introducing more opportunities, industrial robots of the 21st century can be whatever fits the bill.
This article has been updated. It originally published in September 2018. Mark Smith contributed to the article.