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Building the Case for Next-gen Industrial Robots
The answer to reinvigorating manufacturing: bring on the co-bots
By Casey Nobile

Over the past four decades and continuing into the present day, the realities of a global economic climate have continued to alter the manufacturing paradigm. Most economists agree that the days of low-wage workers making low-tech products are disappearing for good as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms a steady transition from a manufacturing to a service base.

In a recent report from MIT Technology Review, Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann, attributes the decrease in manufacturing jobs to a rise in productivity and a slower demand for manufactured products. The report cites Amercia’s trade deficit in physical goods, which reached $738 billion a year as of 2011.

The recent recession and a spike in competition from emerging countries, including those LCCs that U.S. manufacturers outsourced to throughout the 90s, is driving the national focus onto brining manufacturing supremacy back to the U.S.

So, what’s the best way to do so? According to Hausmann, it involves shifting emphasis from producing jobs to producing machinery.

“The step that makes the most sense for the U.S. is to become the producer of the machinery that will power the next global manufacturing revolution. That is where the most complex and sophisticated products are, and that is the work that can pay higher wages,” says Hausmann.

Hausmann says 3-D printing is one disruptive technology that the U.S. market should strive to capture. Like the 3-D printing industry, the next generation of robotic machinery responds to the needs of new manufacturing: shorter production runs, more design and mass customization all closer to the consumer base.

More and more countries are recognizing the importance of these machines and striving to position themselves as robot manufacturers. Consider China’s manufacturing giant, Foxconn: Chairman Terry Gou has only just begun to deliver on his promise to produce and install 1 million robots in his factories. And, with the robot market surging in China (between 2006 and 2011 the annual supply quadrupled), it’s only a matter of time before the country becomes a major robot producer as well.

The U.S. can, likewise, position itself to benefit from continuous growth in the international robotics market by leveraging its uniquely talented science and technology base, as well as R&D intensity, into industrial robot development.

Game-changing science is already morphing into revolutionary robots for manufacturing among emerging U.S. companies like Rethink Robotics and Industrial Perception. Internationally, the developments are equally compelling. 

The next evolutionary step in industrial robotics

When it comes to flexible manufacturing, features of the classic industrial robot must be reversed on nearly every point: from fixed installation to relocatability; from periodic repeatable tasks to frequent task changes; from intermittent to constant connectivity; from no interaction with humans to frequent collaboration with workers; from space separation to space sharing; from profitability within years to near-immediate ROI.

This new generation of robot systems follows new design principles posed by the needs and requirements of a wide range of possible applications, not the least of which are safety and dexterity.

Lighter-weight, dual-arm designs from ABB, Yaskawa’s Motoman Division, KUKA and Kawada Industries are reaching never-before-seen levels of human-like performance in research labs across the world.

Equipped with backdrivable motors and new sensor technology, these light-payload robots are now safer than ever and, according to ISO standards, perfectly able to work cage-free.

Companies involved in this next-gen market such as Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics and (soon) Redwood Robotics are further advertising game-changing price points, driven by the need for lower-cost robots among SMBs.

And the simultaneous development of smarter control systems, intuitive training capabilities and better vision technologies are allowing these robots to work efficiently with non-technical personnel, even in unstructured environments.

Clearly, no singular event will cause manufacturing to shift from the labor-driven trade it began as to the purely machine-driven industry of the future, but the appetite for this technology must and will continue to drive the innovations in hardware and software that will get us there.

Gain more information on this topic from our 41-page, in-depth report: Outlook for Next-Gen, New-Gen, Industrial Co-worker Roboticsright here at Robotics Business Review.

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About the author

Casey Nobile is the lead editor for Robotics Business Review’s RBR50 news, editorial and business segment. She is also contributing writer and editor for the publication’s News & Technology columns with special emphasis on breaking news coverage for science, technology and financial transactions. Casey is also editor and contributor for other in-house publications: Robotics Trends; RoboBusiness and RoboBusiness exhibit services.

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