Forward Observations: Happy Birthday, Dear Robot
EP Editorial Staff | April 22, 2014
By Rick Carter, Executive Editor
I attended a sort-of birthday party for robots last month in Detroit. Robotics leader ABB used its annual Technology Days event to remind attendees (mostly customers and integrators) that they’ve been making robots for 40 years. The company’s reference point was the dawn of the microcomputer-controlled electric industrial robot, their version of which first appeared in 1974.
To be honest, the event was less party than information session about the company’s robot offerings and the ever-growing list of things they can do. But if nothing else, the birthday idea serves to remind anyone who may still perceive robots as somehow “new” that they’re way off about that. No one at the event felt that way, I’m sure, though there may be some who have yet to see that robotics and automation technology in general are at the heart of the United States’ ability to retain—and now strengthen—its position as the world’s leading manufacturing country.
Many of you have robots in your own operation. So many tasks fall within their realm—lift, sort, move, measure, inspect, cut, weld, grind, install, paint—it’s impractical not to today, if the price tag can be justified. The experts are working on that, of course, as well as developing ways to integrate robotics further into manufacturing and other sectors. According to ABB, we may soon find robots in areas like medical diagnostics, product disassembly (for recycling) and food processing, especially in the challenging environment of meat production.
While industry is still a long way from seeing fully human-like robots on the plant floor, this capability is getting closer. One example—ABB’s new Dual Arm Concept robot—was on display in Detroit. Unveiled late last year (though still a prototype and not yet in production) the Dual Arm is designed for small-parts assembly, especially in electronics, an area that has so far relied mostly on large numbers of human hands. As the name implies, ABB’s unit has two human-like arms connected to a torso (though no head). The size of a child, it’s portable and designed for easy maneuverability around a plant where needed to “close the gap between manual assembly and a fully automatic assembly process,” according to product literature. ABB personnel stressed that the unit is designed to perform assembly tasks in tandem with humans, not independent of them. Similar new units from other makers (Seiko Epson, Yaskawa) suggest that this is a key new frontier for robotics, and will be of great interest to operations in both high- and low-cost countries.
Interestingly, while ABB’s Dual Arm model was designed in Europe, the prototypes were built and are being tested in China, home of the world’s largest concentration of manual electronics assemblers. China will probably become a gold-level customer for the new unit as it continues to shift away from its manual-workforce model. According to the International Federation of Robotics, China is, in fact, the world’s fastest-growing market for robotics (based on 2012 figures). It’s no secret that China wants to be seen as an equal alongside first-world industrialized nations, and robotics will help make that happen.
Having spent the best part of two days around the cream of today’s robots, I was impressed both by their capabilities and the maker’s emphasis on “flexibility”—a sure way to expand existing markets and open new ones. After lunching with an integrator, however, I was brought a little closer to earth when he told me he hadn’t seen much new at the event. Really! Had he seen the Dual Arm model? Well no, not yet. There were too many people around it. MT&AP