Automation Automation Strategies Management Robotics

Look into Tomorrow’s Factory

EP Editorial Staff | November 18, 2018

Given industry’s ‘new normal’ and advances in technologies and methods, changes are occurring rapidly, including in human-robot partnerships.

The factory of the past was founded on economies of scale. By using industrial methods to produce large quantities of the same items over a long period of time, costs generally were reduced and margins improved. Capital costs were fixed and high, while variable costs were low. Now, though, the “new normal” in many industries is high-mix and low-volume instead of high-volume and low-mix, with much shorter cycles.

According to Steven Wyatt of ABB’s Robotics business unit, Auburn Hills, MI (abb.com), that presents an enormous challenge. The increasing mix of products means people need to frequently work closer with robots in ways that are sporadic and not always predictable, i.e., bringing them new materials, changing programs, and inspecting new processes.

Many of today’s industrial robots still need to remain behind cages to keep workers safe. This means the robots often have to be shut off each time a human comes near. “It simply is not productive to shut down a factory every time a person comes close to a process these days,” Wyatt stated. “Today’s high-mix/low-volume production means manufacturers need both productivity and safety.”

Most of world’s 1.7-million operating industrial robots still aren’t connected to the industrial internet, which deprives factories of useful intelligence that can improve performance and help human operators make better decisions. As Wyatt described the situation, only about 5% of industrial robots are connected in some way, meaning there’s huge potential.

These days, the availability and connectivity of low-cost sensors is changing the amount of information available in digital form. The information can be used, for example, for predictive maintenance, to respond to outside influences such as changing order patterns, or to avoid accidents.

TOOLS

Accommodating so much change brings what Wyatt calls “pain points.” Low-volume/high-mix means more costly engineering time and shop-floor disruptions to ramp up new production. Shorter product cycles are increasing the cost of even an hour of unplanned downtime. Getting production closer to customers may mean moving production somewhere where there’s a shortage of skilled staff. It’s up to Factory-of-the-Future technology to relieve these pain points, and the tools already exist. Among them:

• Virtual commissioning can allow new products to be launched faster, with testing and troubleshooting carried out before the product is installed.

• Cloud-based systems can combine operating data of all machines of a particular type so that they can learn from one another and operators can learn to identify warning signs for machine failure.

• Shop-floor disruption can be minimized by machines that learn easily, for example with “lead-through programming,” where robot actions are simply “recorded” by moving the arm to where it should go and “saving” the operation. A significant simplification of a process that used to require lines of computer code written by a specialist, this advancement can reduce programming from many hours to minutes.

COLLABORATION

The Factory of the Future will have various kinds of robots with different levels of collaboration (see sidebar below). In some cases these will include traditional industrial robots whose speed and positions are controlled by smart software that allows people to work in close proximity without stopping production. In other cases, it will mean people and robots directly sharing the same task.

The ability of collaborative robots to work safely without cages also means that manufacturers are free to flexibly design their production flow to meet customer needs, rather than being restrained by fixed barriers. For instance, a collaborative robot could spend its morning “shift” gluing USB flash drives together and then use its afternoon to place finished products into a laser-engraving station.

MACHINE LEARNING

The next development will be the maturing of machine learning, an artificial intelligence (AI) application based largely on pattern recognition. Today, robots are limited to doing exactly what they are programmed to do, and are not able to react, as a person can, to changes in their environment or tasks. As Wyatt pointed out, “The ultimate goal is to have robots that are easier to use and perform better with less human intervention.”

This is already evidenced by a shift from programming robots to teaching them with lead-through programming. In the future, robots will be able to “learn” a new task such as picking up unfamiliar objects from other robots. Machine learning may one day lead to self-optimizing robots. What if all the robots that perform the same task around the world could “huddle” at the end of their shift like people and analyze what went well and what could be improved, so they perform even better the next day?

MOVING INTO TOMORROW

With many of the tools already available, the Factory of the Future may be closer than you think. It will include mass customization, people working side by side with robots, and even connected robots that can learn and share useful information. Manufacturers who invest in these solutions for flexibility, efficiency, and performance today are likely to be a very big part of tomorrow. EP

Advances in Man-Machine Collaboration

Until recently, robots and humans were kept separate from each other. The power and speed of early robotic arms made them extremely dangerous to be near. Barriers, cages, light fences, and other safety measures ensured that people and such machines didn’t unexpectedly interact. According to information from ABB’s Robotics unit, Auburn Hills, MI (abb.com), however, man-machine collaboration has changed in recent years:

While the heavy lifters continue to comprise the majority of the robotics market, there’s considerable growth in smaller, lighter-duty robots, some of them intended to work more closely with humans. These collaborative robots, sometimes referred to as “cobots,” are working hand-in-gripper with humans in various manufacturing, processing, testing, and other applications.

In many cases, collaborative robots are traditional robots that have been programmed to reduce the danger to nearby humans. These robots are limited to operation at slower speeds to prevent them from unexpectedly striking and possibly injuring their working partner. Still, they have all the power or force of a conventional robot. Robots designed specifically for collaboration, on the other hand, are inherently safe.

Because collaborative robots are designed to work interactively with humans, they can safely work at higher speeds than traditional robots, which are typically slowed to speeds of 200 mm/sec. Collaborative robots can safely operate at three to five times that speed.

As ABB notes, while collaborative units represent only a small portion of the $40-billion industrial-robot market, the segment is expected to increase substantially in the near future. Manufacturers are already using them in a variety of applications, including lightweight machine tending and material handling and testing. New applications are uncovered every day.

Steven Wyatt is head of marketing and sales at ABB’s Robotics business unit, Auburn Hills, MI (abb.com). This article is based on material that first appeared in the company’s Robotics customer magazine.

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