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How Manufacturing Automation Is Evolving

Credit: BMW Werk Leipzig, via Wikimedia

March 07, 2018      
Nathan Sykes

Manufacturing automation has been common since the 1970s. Advances in technology, including robotics, big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things have improved factory production since then.

Collaborative robots — also called cobots — are sweeping across the industry. Rather than take over for laborers completely, cobots can work alongside humans to improve efficiency and reduce hazards. Autonomous mobile platforms are popular in factories and warehouses, as seen in Amazon’s fulfillment centers.

Here are some robotics trends that are driving the evolution of manufacturing automation.

RaaS can help manage costs

Software as a service and cloud computing tools have revolutionized all industries, especially smaller startups and midsize operations. Not only do they allow organizations to remain stress-free about the maintenance and operation of their crucial systems, but they also alleviate the burden of costly adoption for smaller teams.

Robotics as a service (RaaS) is similar, and it involves the rental or temporary acquisition of hardware to keep costs more manageable. This has allowed more advanced technologies and robots to penetrate the agriculture industry, for example, which is usually extremely cost-sensitive. Farmers can rent and use equipment they couldn’t before, and in return, pay agreed-upon rates.

Companies in the RaaS space include Savioke, Robosoft Services Robots, and Acorn Product Development.

Cobots come to manufacturing automation

Innova Research estimates that cobots account for 4% of the total industrial robots that were shipped in 2015.

In addition to being able to work alongside humans, unlike their older, caged cousins, cobots can be more versatile. They are smaller and can handle multiple tasks, such as pick-and-place operations for goods on a production line.

Cobots can help eliminate rote or dangerous work, freeing humans for more satisfying jobs. People can aid with perception and avoid repetitive stress.

In addition, cobots are increasingly backed by machine learning and AI platforms that let them perform more advanced tasks and share lessons learned.

Most of the standard industrial automation providers, such as ABB, offer cobots, and specialized vendors such as Rethink Robotics or Universal Robots have experienced rapid growth in response to market demand.

Upgrades for older systems

Manufacturing automation doesn’t just include brand-new technologies. Older systems and known setups can be made more compact, get new controls, and become more efficient and accessible.

By improving age-old designs and robotics hardware, businesses can save money and free up valuable factory or warehouse space.

The EPSON Flexion N-Series 6-Axis Robot, for example, uses a compact folding design to reduce the required space by up to 40% when compared to other six-axis robots. It can also work in more confined spaces, negating the need for large open spaces trimming down the amount of warehouse or factory space carved out for robots.

Rockwell Automation and Schneider Electric offer services to help manufacturers evaluate where they can modernize, and of course, apply manufacturing automation.

Robotics and IoT

The emerging industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) takes data from connected, always-on devices and allows manufacturers to gain insights in real time.

IoT lets hardware be smarter, faster, and more aware. Coupled with sensors, a mobile robot could, for example, identify when a worker’s presence is in the vicinity, and slow or stop production altogether to make time for necessary input.

Another robot can be put on a schedule to speed up or slow down based on its surroundings or the timing of small-batch production cycles.

The beauty of IoT sensors when combined with robots is that they are connected to a larger network. Robots can even be designed to collaborate with one another and work more intelligently.

One company focused with an IoT mind-set is ABB. The company has crafted systems that can store and analyze their own usage data, which is communicated to other devices. This allows robots to consistently improve and grow over time, becoming efficiency powerhouses.

Nathan SykesNathan Sykes is the editor of Finding an Outlet, where he writes about AI, big data, IoT, and other emerging technologies. To read his latest articles, follow him on Twitter @nathansykestech.