Robotics and automation in manufacturing – The impact and future

Robotics incorporates multiple engineering disciplines to build, program, and use robots to complete a wide variety of manufacturing tasks, including moving and assembling products, parts, and tools in industrial production lines.

Industrial automation uses various technologies, including computer hardware, software, machines, robots, and control systems, to automate tasks usually done by human workers within a manufacturing process.

Sometimes, a new subset of industrial robots, called collaborative robots or cobots, are used to safely work alongside humans to perform tasks that cannot be fully automated. Cobots also help manufacturers deal with a labor shortage that can occur as workers age out of their jobs.

Many manufacturers find additional value in utilizing robotics and automation to augment and improve their existing processes that require human involvement. According to IDC, by 2021, 20% of top manufacturers are likely to embedded intelligence, coupled with the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), blockchain, and cognitive intelligence, to automate large-scale processes and speed execution time by up to 25%.

Notably, in 2018, there were 74 robot units per 10,000 employees in the global manufacturing industry, and real industrial robots now working in the United States number at least 230,000. It is predicted that in the next three to five years, more and more manufacturers will plan for robotics and automation while designing and engineering their products, factory layouts, and upskilling current employees to save money, increase efficiencies, and remain competitive.

Today, industrial robots are available commercially in various sizes, shapes, configurations, and different axes or degrees of freedom. The common types of industrial automation systems set up by these robots are as follows:

Fixed or hard automation

This kind of automation is deployed to perform repetitive and fixed operations to achieve high production rates. It uses a special purpose or dedicated robot to automate the fixed sequence of operations. Once employed, it is relatively hard to alter its operations or design, making it inflexible in providing operational varieties, but highly efficient to increase the production rate and reduce cost. Some of these automated systems are used in the distilled process, paint shops, and conveyors.

Programmable automation

This type of automation enables a specific class of product changes and assembling or processing operations by modifying the control program. It is best suited for batch production processes where product volume is medium to high. However, it doesn’t allow to change and reconfigure the new product or operation sequence. This type of automation can be found in paper mills, steel rolling mills, etc.

Flexible or soft automation

This provides automatic control equipment with great flexibility to make changes in product design and operations. These changes can be implemented quickly through the commands given in codes by a human operator. This allows the manufacturers to produce multiple products in different ranges. Examples of these automation systems are automatic guided vehicles, automobiles, and multipurpose CNC machines.

Now, what are the business benefits of utilizing robotics and automation? Implementing robotics and automation in manufacturing witness many benefits, including lower production costs, reduced time to complete tasks, labor cost savings, increased onsite safety, and higher-skilled employees.

Production efficiencies and cost savings

  • Increased efficiency and faster throughput: Industrial robots can perform tasks quicker than humans, decreasing cycle time. Robots can work around the clock as well, enabling 24/7 operations.
  • Flexibility and scalability: Once a process has been defined as a series of instructions for robot execution, it can be scheduled for a particular time––either for one robot or many working in unison. Robots can also be programmed to prioritize tasks if one to-do is more important than another in an evolving scenario—as each robot is typically capable of performing many actions.
  • Improved accuracy: Robots are programmed to follow the rules and rarely make mistakes.
  • Ease of integration with existing machinery: Advances in computing power, software development, and networking technologies have made assembling, installing, and maintaining robots faster and less costly than before. Look for experience and industry expertise in a systems integrator that is tailored to your individual needs. Consider the integration needed to complement other new technologies–such as additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, data sensors, and more.
  • Real-time data gathering: Robot tasks can be monitored and analyzed at every step, producing valuable data that can support process improvement over time and help with regulatory compliance. The sensors and actuators can monitor and report their status, aid process control, and collect data for maintenance for continuous improvement and troubleshooting purposes.

Onsite safety

  • Fewer accidents and injuries: Many robot safety features and technologies have existed for quite some time with proven success, with robotic developers and integrators using safe zones, fencing, and other technologies to ensure safe robot operation. Though accidents can happen, it’s rare, and they’re often caused by either operator error, setup mistakes, or entering a robot’s operating zone. Robots also frequently take on more dangerous or ergonomically challenging tasks, lessening the chance for worker on-the-job injury.
  • Faster reactions: Industrial robots take up less space than they used to and are armed with countless sensors to increase reaction time, use appropriate force, and stop production when nearing humans or other collision points. If sensors indicate a collision risk with an operator, the robot will automatically slow down or alter its path to avoid it.
  • No safety training: Control Engineering reports on the safety of collaborative robots, stating they are “designed to understand their environment and interact with people, which is unlike a traditional robot that works on the assembly line. These technologies are intended to develop the natural interfaces that allow for the operation of complex robotic systems with less training and expended energy.”

Employee development

  • Upskilling of workers: Workers whose tasks are augmented by or entirely replaced by robotics have the chance to develop their careers into new roles that will be created by automation. World Economic Forum predicts that “as robots take over the most repetitive and arduous tasks, humans will transition to less physically demanding and straining roles,” learning new skills in the process.
  • Larger talent pools: Robotics engineers were once rare and expensive specialists, but today, you can find a large number of people with the skills required to design, install, operate, and maintain robotic production systems since a wide range of subjects on manufacturing technologies and engineering is widely taught in schools and colleges around the world.
  • Improved employee morale: The most suitable tasks and processes for automation are typically the most onerous and least enjoyed. Employees relieved of them can be refocused on more rewarding and higher-value activities. This, in turn, positively impacts their morale and the overall culture of your company. This is particularly true when considering cobots, as they work alongside and not in place of existing employees. Cobots can relieve manufacturing workers of “drudge work” and free them to focus on more mentally challenging tasks––ultimately fostering more valuable employees in the manufacturer’s eyes.

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