Collaborative robots ready to take on a larger role

When used strategically, robots can improve operations.


The increased use of robotics, and their increased flexibility in manufacturing, will be one of the points of focus at the 2016 Industrial Automation North America Pavilion at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. Courtesy: IMTSRobots continue to offer big benefits for manufacturers, according to exhibitors at the upcoming Industrial Automation North America (IANA) 2016. The trade show, co-located at International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), takes place Sept. 12-17, 2016, at McCormick Place in Chicago and will feature high-interest robotics topics, such as collaborative learning, core isolation and even setting standards.

CFE Media will present its Global Automation and Manufacturing Summit (GAMS) on Wednesday, Sept. 14 as part of the Industrial Automation North American pavilion, presented by Hannover Fairs USA, at IMTS. Among the topics at this year's GAMS event will be a session at 2:30 p.m. entitled: Robotics: Rise of the Machines.

Robots also are continuing to take the manufacturing world by storm. According to the Robotics Industries Association, robotics orders have set new records, reporting a 14% growth in 2015 as North American companies placed orders valued at $1.8 billion. By 2018, there will be 1.3 million industrial robots operating in factories around the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Rapid advances in robotics continue to drive this interest. Today's robots are lightweight, highly flexible and easy to implement. Robots can weld, assemble, handle materials and even package food. Lower costs add to the benefits, offering new opportunities for manufacturers of all sizes.

Sensing and core splitting

More sophisticated technology has created smarter robots that can collaboratively learn and sense what is going on around them. "Collaborative robots are going strong, and you will see a larger role in force sensing and control," said Steve Somes, president of Force Robots. "Responding to external forces not only makes robots safer for collaboration, it also enables more tasks like assembly, grinding and deburring."

Will Sobel, CEO of System Insights, said that automation needs to move from teach-based to intent-based. This means that humans will communicate tasks and the robot will take action. Sobel adds that robots simply need to perform dynamic path planning with vision and sensors instead of static instructions.

Another trend in robot controls, core isolation or core "splitting" in multicore CPUs, has been made possible through advancements in PC-based control software. According to Matt Prellwitz, drive technology application specialist for Beckhoff Automation, this means that the machine controller can serve "double-duty" as the robot controller, a trend that has dramatically increased efficiency and reduced costs.

"The increase in multicore CPU power and the ability to implement core isolation enables software engineers to run, for example, kinematics on one processor core and spread functions across other cores, such as PLC, motion control and human-machine interface (HMI) software," said Prellwitz. "The Windows operating system (OS) on these PC-based controllers can also receive its own core. That means all machine and robot-control functionality can run independently of the OS, which helps elevate performance and pushes kinematic applications to an exciting new level."

Setting standards

Standards also play a key role in robotics success, safely enabling movements between locations and even allowing one or more robots to interact with the same set of equipment. Sobel said that this can be handled using discovery- and interaction-based location models with systems for scanning an environment to learn collision domains and object placement. Sobel added that semantic models for discovery and location allow robots to be used on mobile platforms when combined with limitations concerning velocity and force feedback without the need for security cages.

"Through the open standards available, PC-based control enables greater integration of robots into enterprise systems and cloud-based services for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industrie 4.0-style concepts," said Prellwitz. "Technology like mobile device integration can also be used so plant specialists can receive push notifications and the ability to scale the HMI for the machine and robot to 'any piece of glass,' from smartphones to tablets. It can even lead to highly advanced manufacturing and assembly methodologies, such as object-oriented manufacturing."

Robots and employees

By taking advantage of these robotics advancements to manage mundane tasks, manufacturers also gain the benefit of motivating employees with more interesting responsibilities. "We can better utilize the talent we have when robots handle the more mundane work," adds Sobel. "There will be some processes that we cannot automate. But when we increase productivity through robots without impacting the workforce, we can move to a more efficient and larger manufacturing base."

Robots do have their limitations. Due to their mechanics, conventional robots have difficulty with fine-resolution force control. "If control of force is needed for more than safety or manual guidance, manufacturers should look to new, lightweight designs that either incorporate direct-joint torque measurement (like Baxter, KUKA iiwa and ABB Yumi) or have direct-drive-style actuation like our Touch Robot," said Somes.

In addition, employee safety should always remain a concern. Even though some collaborative robots have removed the need for safety screens, Somes recommends that manufacturers stay mindful of possible additional protections needed for humans with any automation. For more information on the wealth of resources and solutions available at IANA 2016, visit here.

Larry Turner is president and CEO of Hannover Fairs USA Inc.

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