December 02, 2016      

In 2016, industrial automation — and collaborative robots in particular — have had an impressive expansion in a variety of sectors. Different types of companies are considering robotics as way to boost efficiency and productivity. Recently, companies such as Whirlpool and Deco Lighting have made big investments in cobots, sometimes working closely with the European and Asian robotics industries.

As collaborative robots get more and more attention, various governments have started defining long-term strategies. For example, Germany introduced its “High-Tech Strategy 2020” for Industry 4.0 back in 2006, but some Mediterranean countries haven’t even started planning.

China just approved a five-year plan to optimize manufacturing with automation. Even Italy, with its recent release of “Italia 4.0,” is expecting growth in innovative sectors of around $50 billion.

Robotics and related technologies such as 3D printing are affecting not just manufacturing, but also healthcare, the service industry, and the arts. After the massive digitization and Internet penetration of the past few decades, global policy makers must now understand new concepts such as big data, cloud computing, and automated business processes.

European and Asian robotics organizations must properly implement cobots and redefine the nature of work. First, though, they must set the parameters for safe human-machine interaction.

Business takeaways:

  • As the global market for industrial automation continues to grow, it’s up to national governments and robotics companies to demonstrate the value of collaborative robotics to skeptical end users and the public.
  • China, South Korea, and Germany are actively planning for the future with economic policies and investments supporting robotics.
  • Safety guidelines such as ISO TS 15066 should help U.S., European, and Asian robotics regulatory development without interfering with cobot adoption.

Cobots as risk-free co-workers

While workcells within safety cages remain in heavy manufacturing and may even become a thing of the past, both suppliers and end users need to understand how collaborative robots can fit into and change their operations.

Rethink Robotics Inc.’s Sawyer is a perfect example of the trend toward machines that can perceive the presence of other workers and change their parameters accordingly. Thus, there’s no need for a complete shutdown to change a robot’s behavior or to prevent certain risks.

A collaborative robot can adjust its power and speed levels if it detects a human in its environment, reducing the chance of injuries.

Rather than worry about robots replacing human workers, governments and businesses should redefine their (and the public’s) expectations. The new cobots can safely provide cooperation in more industries and at lower risk, helping even small and midsize enterprises find profit through automation.

The need for common safety rules

Early this year, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) gathered experts from all over the world to examine collaborative robot safety. ISO Technical Specification 15066 isn’t an enforceable standard, but it is a set of guidelines for the construction and safe use of cobots worldwide.

Asian robotics and other automation infographic

Check out TradeMachine’s latest infographic for more statistics on cobots and automation.

In addition, European and Asian robotics companies (and, of course, U.S. ones) can benefit from clarified definitions for risk assessment in human-machine interaction, and national policies can build on these guidelines.

The road that led to the release of the ISO TS 15066 took six years because it was necessary to describe rules suitable for numerous situations.

The basic idea is that cobots should be incapable of doing any harm, but they should still able to work constantly alongside people. If the issue is considered only in terms of maximum force levels, the problem of what type of environment the robots can be applied in is not yet solved.

If collaborative robots handle dangerous items, such as sheet metal, that could easily injure somebody through close contact.

Obviously, the type of task affects the associated risk level for cobots, regardless of how much human interaction is involved in the process. Understanding which conditions lead to a secure use of these machines is crucial for companies where human-robot interactions need to be frequent and well-calculated for productivity.

Fears of massive job losses and safety concerns are just some of the social challenges facing European and Asian robotics. To prevent any Luddite reaction, governments and companies have to cooperate in explaining, regulating, and helping to diffuse collaborative robotics.

The Asian robotics market widens

China, which is already one of the largest purchasers of industrial robots, plans to upgrade its economy by encouraging the domestic production of robots. To that end, the country’s latest five-year plan simplifies regulations around the acquisition of foreign companies.

A noteworthy example is Midea Group Co.’s acquisition of KUKA Robotics AG. Despite the German government’s initial reservations, the deal was eventually approved by the European Commission.

Not long after that, Beijing-based Jianguang Asset Management Co. bought the Standard Products unit from NXP Semiconductor NV for $2.75 billion. Standard Products was renamed Nexperia and is based in the Netherlands.

These European and Asian robotics deals are no exception; the Chinese robotics market is growing three times faster than that of the rest of the world. They’re also the direct consequence of the political and economic goals of the “Made in China 2025” plan.

As the volume of imports into China from Europe and North America are reduced, it’s no wonder that there’s an urgent need for internal resources.

Remember that China is not the only big player in the current race for automation. Three of the world’s biggest robot manufacturers are from in Japan — FANUC, Nachi, and Kawasaki.

U.S. manufacturers such as Tesla Motors Inc. are investing heavily in automated work processes, and South Korea is looking to robotics to help it, like other developed nations, deal with a rapidly aging population.

More on Cobots and International Strategies:

Cobot supply and demand

In addition, recent reports predict that the global robotics market will be worth around $32.8 billion by the end of 2017, underscoring the demand for cobots.

In the near future, U.S., European, and Asian robotics R&D and adoption will directly affect their economies’ success. Not only will cobots change the nature of human labor, but the race for innovation will also redefine business relations among nations.

That said, it’s still hard to predict how the diffusion of cobots will shape the world to come, considered that the menace of global unemployment is restraining some countries from taking unpopular decisions.

See also TradeMachine’s latest infographic for more data on industrial automation.