Moving forward with robots

03 November 2022

Julian Ware explores how advances in robotics and automation are making manufacturing and logistics companies of all sizes more productive, flexible, and resilient.

Offering the potential for faster, flexible, and more efficient production with less waste, robots can help companies be more adaptable and sustainable. Statistics from the 2021 World Robotics Report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) 2021 highlight a global increase in the rate of robot adoption, with robot density – calculated as the average number of robots per 10,000 workers – almost doubling between 2015 and 2020. Going forward, this growth is predicted to accelerate further, with estimates from research organisation Research and Markets estimating annual market growth of 12.1% to 2030 to reach a value of USD 88.54 billion.  

A driver for this growth will be the increased use of robots, as developments in technology – from software through to mobile robotics – open new possibilities for deployment in an expanded range of applications. 

Ongoing developments in robotic hardware, software and AI technologies are opening new possibilities for deploying robots in manufacturing applications. Today’s robotic solutions can be used to achieve highly automated end-to-end manufacturing, with options encompassing everything from low payload cobots and fast picking Delta robots through to modular solutions and complete cells for handling multiple operations. The development of smart AGVs and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is also helping to boost efficiency, enabling the seamless transfer of parts or sub-assemblies between different production stations, and ensuring that they are delivered where they need to be, on time and without error.  

Globally, the benefits that this joined up approach to production can bring is seeing a steady growth across a variety of industries, including food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, electronics, logistics and construction as companies look for ways to integrate robots into their operations. 

Innovations such as collaborative robots (cobots), simplified programming and user interfaces are also helping to make robots more accessible to SMEs. Cobots can help inexperienced users tackle the ‘low hanging fruit’ of simpler applications, with the experience gained enabling them to develop their understanding of what can be achieved with more complex set-ups. 

Developments in programming and tools, such as block-based programming, now enable first time users to introduce robotic automation into their production lines without the need for specialist skills. 

Software is also helping to address many of the pain points that have traditionally been associated with designing and commissioning robotic installations. Tools such as digital twins, virtual and Augmented Reality (AR) viewers, and offline programming and simulation mean companies can develop and test different configurations to find the best solution for their requirements. This ability to model and refine robotic processes to find the optimum configuration is particularly beneficial for industries subject to rapid changes in consumer demands, such as the food and beverage and logistics industries. 

One of the benefits of robotic automation is its ability to enhance workforce productivity.  Ongoing developments in robotic usability, performance and capabilities including vision, force control and path following have helped to broaden the applicability of robots across a range of tasks, enabling them to be used to fill gaps in workforces. In many cases, companies can also make better use of their existing skilled workforces by assigning lower value, dirty or more dangerous tasks to robots, releasing workers to handle other duties and/or higher levels tasks including supervising and programming the robot. 

A robotic future
With many companies citing a shortage of expert robot operators as a key reason for not switching to robotic automation, there is a need to ensure that both current and future generations of workers can access the training they need to be able to use robots. 

With this in mind, ABB has been developing its training programmes to better prepare current and future generations for an age of increased automation. At a grassroots level, packages for schools, colleges and universities combine both robots and programming tools to equip students with the knowledge and experience needed to develop, build and maintain robotic solutions for manufacturing applications.

Julian Ware is UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics.

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