Children are our future — but so are robots. That’s especially true when it comes to manufacturing and other heavy industries, which now more than ever have to do more with less. We can expect 2019 to be a breakthrough year for robotics, so let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.
Cobots and Autonomous Vehicles
The word “cobot” is a portmanteau for “collaborative robot.” This branch of robotics exemplifies the idea that autonomous machines will supplement rather than outright replace human labor. The cobot industry is expected by some market researchers to grow by more than 33 percent per year between 2018 and the end of 2026.
It’s not uncommon in heavy industries such as manufacturing for assembly line workers to operate near robots. But the latest trend sees cobots becoming compact enough — and certain enough in their movements — to move more freely between areas within factories or even between separate worksites.
Imagine yourself on a factory floor where agricultural vehicles and equipment are assembled. These are loud, demanding, and frequently dangerous environments where heavy components must be moved around in a time-efficient manner. One company in Denmark, Kverneland Group, chose to complement its human workforce with MiR500 cobots that travel as much as 30 miles per day. The size and shape of these cobots, designed by Mobile Industrial Robots, corresponds with standard pallet sizes and can lift 1,100 pounds confidently and traverse the facility without guidance.
Previously, heavy manned trucks were the tool of choice for performing internal deliveries of critical components. But thanks to these cobots, workplace injuries have fallen even with the constant coming and going of flesh and machine between factory locations.
Robotic Arms, Mobile Manipulators, and Dexterous Grasping
When most people envision robots in an industrial setting, robotic arms are one of the first things that come to mind. Recent years have seen vast improvements in the dexterity and strength of robotic arms, and we’ll continue to see additional breakthroughs as the market for such robots grows to a value of $14.7 billion between now and 2026.
FANUC’s M-2000 is a prime example of this type of robotic implement. It boasts enough strength to lift payloads weighing up to 2.3 tons and promises best-in-class reach, dexterity, and flexibility thanks to its six-axis movement. The most obvious applications include the automotive and metal fabrication industries, where it can lift and position extremely heavy loads and entire vehicles safely while assembly or maintenance workers carry out their more specialized tasks.
One notable offshoot of robotic arms is known as the “mobile manipulator.” Of all the autonomous and semi-autonomous robot types mentioned here, this is the one that looks most like something out of science fiction. Mobile manipulators from companies such as Kinova and Neobotix combine the raw strength of a robotic arm with portability and advanced pathfinding. These robots can go anywhere an operator requires a literal helping hand, and they often require little navigational intervention thanks to collision detection plus map-making features. In other words, robots can “learn” safe routes between work areas.
Agility and Adaptability
A group called ARM (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing) has made the growth of the manufacturing sector, through the development and deployment of advanced robotics, its raison d’être. Members of ARM include major manufacturers (3M, Airbus, BMW), research colleges and institutions (Carnegie Mellon, Southwest Research Institute) and technology and semiconductor companies (Intel).
In February 2019, the group publicly announced eight topic areas for which it is actively soliciting proposals. One of these areas involves modular robotic designs. In ARM’s own words, they’re looking to jump-start “the development of modular, reconfigurable, agile and flexible robotic work cells for manufacturing processes that can be deconstructed and reassembled to achieve a new operational objective.”
But what would these agile, flexible and adaptable robots actually look like?
Acutronic Robotics is one company that’s actively engaged with this topic. Thanks to their latest creations — “Mara” (a modular robotic arm) and “H-ROS” (a flexible, open-source programming framework for adapting common robotic components to different tasks) — the company believes it has a solution that could solve “one of the main bottlenecks in the industry — integration.”
Thanks to modular, plug-and-play designs, intuitive open-source programming tools and a selection of swappable robot grippers as well as modular joints with various grip strengths, closing speeds, maximum payloads, and degrees of flexibility, companies can more cost-effectively deploy articulated arms and use them for a wider variety of handling and manipulation tasks than ever before. One robot can perform multiple jobs with just a quick swap of a single part.
Sensing, Perception, and Navigational Control
There’s a bigger worry than “robots coming for our jobs.” It’s “robots coming for our fingers and feet.” With this in mind, robotics designers all over the world have committed themselves to improving the location awareness and sensing and perception capabilities of industrial robots.
Veo Robotics provides one example of how this goal can be accomplished. The company uses 3D sensors, placed around industrial robots such as grasping arms, to gather telemetry that gives the robot a clear picture of its surroundings and helps predict the movement of nearby persons, assets, and other robots. As a result, the company’s robots can maintain an extremely fast workflow when no workers are within striking distance, but automatically slow their movements to a safe speed when somebody approaches. As you can probably tell, there’s a great deal of overlap between the underlying tech here and what’s required for truly driverless cars.
The goal here is to improve the safety of cobots to the point that a greater number of autonomous robotic technologies can work in harmony with human beings. Previously, heavy robotic arms had to be cordoned off for safety reasons or even placed behind ballistic shields, which puts a damper on their usefulness. With greater spatial awareness, we can count on industrial robots for even greater usefulness. For instance, the CEO of Veo Robotics received his inspiration from watching human automobile assemblers lift heavy car components.
With a boost to location awareness courtesy of sensors and smarter pathfinding, robots could do the heavy lifting while welders and electricians do the work that requires extreme dexterity, all within the same space.
In short, 2019 is shaping up to be a pivotal moment in the ongoing evolution of industrial robots. In the US especially, as companies face greater pressure to reshore jobs while at the same time competing with cheaper overseas labor, collaborative, autonomous, and highly dexterous robots represent a welcome compromise. They’re not replacing us — yet — but they’re definitely helping us do all kinds of work faster, safer, and more efficiently.