According to the famous aphorism of the American scientist Warren Bennis, only a man and a dog will be needed in the factories of the future. The person feeds the dog, and the dog does not allow the person to approach the equipment that works properly in automatic mode. This quote very succinctly describes how the ideal product should look and function in the future.
But shortly, the number of people in factories and factories is unlikely to be reduced to one employee. And this is even though new technologies have made automation more accessible not only for industrial giants but also for small and medium-sized companies. It is known for sure that the number of robotic workers will increase significantly. There are several reasons for this.
The events of 2020 have further spurred the pace of industrial automation and made companies think seriously about ensuring business continuity even in these challenging environments. It was solutions such as collaborative robots, autonomous mobile robots, and automated guided vehicles, along with cloud-based remote work and diagnostics solutions, that allowed industrial companies not to completely stop production, while complying with all measures against Covid-19, without putting their employees at risk.
One of the main trends in the development of "smart" manufacturing today is the use of collaborative robots. Cobots have gone from being a technological innovation to being a must-have for a modern factory. Even though the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the robotics market noticeably, experts predict a bright future for it. With the onset of the pandemic, the collaborative robot market saw negative growth for the first time, according to data from analyst firm Interact Analysis. Revenue decreased by 11.3% and supply volumes by as much as 5.7%. This is because, in the first months of the epidemic, many organizations became more cautious about investments, including automation, which led to a decrease in the volume of batches supplied by vendors, and even to the cancellation of orders. But, if you believe the research, then we have a reason for optimism since the market for collaborative robots will demonstrate stable and significant growth from this year. In particular, we are now witnessing a V-shaped rebound, which will lead to the growth of this market by almost 20% by the end of this year, which will compensate for all the losses in 2020. After that, analysts predict annual growth rates in the region of 15-20% until 2028.
The field of use of cobots will soon expand even further thanks to the improvement of several technologies. According to experts from the International Federation of Robotics, the rapid development of 3D vision systems and software algorithms will very soon significantly expand the range of tasks that robots can perform autonomously. One example is garbage collection and sorting, which previously used primarily human labor. This is a difficult operation for a robot, which requires it to be able to identify and select a specific thing among other objects that may be similar to each other. In this case, the required object can be seen in whole or in part, covered by other debris, etc. As soon as the robot finds the required object, its software must determine the optimal path to the object, as well as calculate the correct location of the gripper. At the same time, thanks to the sensors inside the robot's grip, the machine can understand how much pressure must be applied so as not to damage the object, while fixing it securely. Another effect of the development of 3D vision systems will be the ability of robots to carry out quality control of products during their transportation. This way, a substandard part is rejected immediately rather than at the end of the production process, which minimizes waste and reduces costs.
The development of the semantic intelligence of industrial robots in the next ten years will allow them to better assess and more adequately respond to the environment. For example, a robot not only recognizes that it is a person in front of it, and not a machine, but will also be able to predict its further actions. If an employee goes to the door and the trajectory of his movement intersects the trajectory of the robot, then the latter will accordingly rebuild its path in real-time and continue moving instead of stopping. Also, IFR experts predict a significant development of technologies for recognizing human speech and gestures by robots, which will allow technology to more adequately respond to the environment, becoming even safer for humans.
Besides, the growth in the use of industrial robots is being spurred on by the new market situation. Consumer demands are changing, today they prefer to purchase already highly customized products, which means that the batch size is getting smaller. In this case, the product life cycle is only shortened. All this puts serious pressure on both manufacturers and logistics companies since it is required to regularly ship small batches of orders in a relatively short time. Collaborative robots give the production the flexibility it needs since they are easy to reprogram and re-equip to perform new tasks, they do not require the erection of safety barriers at the installation site, they have small dimensions, and they are easy to relocate to new production areas.
Flexible manufacturing makes it possible to use autonomous mobile robots, for example, to move goods around factories, since their paths can be easily changed in real-time, unlike automatically controlled vehicles. In the factories of some automakers, AMR is gradually replacing even the conveyor belt, which was an unshakable lump in the basis of car production since the days of Henry Ford.
Unsurprisingly, the cobot / AMR combination looks very promising. While retaining all the advantages of cobots, the mobile platform gives them new opportunities, for example, further expands the range of tasks that they can perform, especially in the field of object transportation, freeing up qualified personnel for more important and complex work. Besides, the mobile cobot can be relocated to another area of the production hall independently, without human intervention, thereby further reducing equipment downtime.
Another advantage of using cobots in production can be a reduction in the carbon footprint of an enterprise. Firstly, the precision of the collaborative robots helps to reduce the amount of waste in production, and the small size and versatility allow you to optimize the space of production halls, thereby saving energy for lighting and heating the premises. Increasing the energy efficiency of production is another trend that will become more and more popular soon. This is necessary, first of all, to reduce the cost of final products to remain competitive. Fortunately, many vendors are equipping collaborative robots with energy-efficient features, while improving the design of cobots to make them more energy-efficient. For example, they are increasingly made from lightweight composite materials and use energy-efficient motors as well as gears with reduced frictional losses.
As practice shows, fears that robots will replace us in our workplaces have been greatly exaggerated. Collaboration between humans and industrial robots is much more effective, especially last year when it became obvious to manufacturers that collaborative robots are becoming an indispensable tool for ensuring the continuity of production and creating sustainable supply chains. The further development of cobots will make them able to perform even more tasks almost completely autonomously, allowing people to free up the energy and time to perform important functions available only to a person with his analytical mind and creative energy. At the same time, cobots' precision and other benefits allow us to create less waste, less harm to the environment, significantly reduce non-production injuries, and better take care of the health of our personnel. All of this is an important part of smart manufacturing, where new technologies work not only to maximize production but also to improve human comfort.