Marina Bill is president of the International Federation of Robotics
The stock of operational robots around the globe hit a new record of about 3.5 million units while the value of installations reached an estimated USD15.7 billion USD, prompting some condiration of the trends shaping automation at the moment.
1. Energy Efficiency
Energy efficiency is key to improving companies’ competitiveness amid rising energy costs. The adoption of robotics helps in many ways to lower energy consumption in manufacturing. Compared to traditional assembly lines, considerable energy savings can be achieved through reduced heating. At the same time, robots work at high speed thus increasing production rates so that manufacturing becomes more time- and energy-efficient.
Today’s robots are designed to consume less energy, which leads to lower operating costs. To meet sustainability targets for their production, companies use industrial robots equipped with energy-saving technology: robot controls are able to convert kinetic energy into electricity, for example, and feed it back into the power grid. This technology significantly reduces the energy required to run a robot. Another feature is the smart power-saving mode that controls the robot´s energy supply on-demand throughout the workday. Since industrial facilities need to monitor their energy consumption, such connected power sensors are likely to become an industry standard for robotic solutions.
Resilience has become an important driver for reshoring in various industries. Car manufacturers, for example, are investing heavily in short supply lines to bring processes closer to their customers. These manufacturers use robot automation to manufacture powerful batteries cost-effectively and in large quantities to support their electric vehicle projects. These investments make the shipment of heavy batteries redundant. This is important as more and more logistics companies refuse to ship batteries for safety reasons.
Relocating microchip production back to the US and Europe is another reshoring trend. Since most industrial products nowadays require a semiconductor chip to function, their supply close to the customer is crucial. Robots play a vital role in chip manufacturing, as they live up to the extreme requirements of precision. Specifically designed robots automate the silicon wafer fabrication, take over cleaning and cleansing tasks or test integrated circuits. Recent examples of reshoring are Intel´s new chip factories in Ohio or the recently announced chip plant in the Saarland region of Germany run by chipmaker Wolfspeed and automotive supplier ZF.
3. Easier-to-use robots
Robot programming has become easier and more accessible to non-experts. Providers of software-driven automation platforms support companies, letting users manage industrial robots with no prior programming experience. Original equipment manufacturers work hand-in-hand with low code or even no-code technology partners that allow users of all skill levels to program a robot.
The easy-to-use software paired with an intuitive user experience replaces extensive robotics programming and opens up new robotics automation opportunities: Software start-ups are entering this market with specialised solutions for the needs of small and medium-sized companies. For example, a traditional heavy-weight industrial robot can be equipped with sensors and new software that allows collaborative setup operation. This makes it easy for workers to adjust heavy machinery to different tasks. Companies will thus get the best of both worlds: robust and precise industrial robot hardware and state-of-the-art cobot software.
Easy-to-use programming interfaces that allow customers to set up the robots themselves also drive the emerging new segment of low-cost robotics. Many new customers reacted to the pandemic in 2020 by trying out robotic solutions. Robot suppliers acknowledged this demand: Easy setup and installation, for instance, with pre-configured software to handle grippers, sensors or controllers support lower-cost robot deployment. Such robots are often sold through web shops and program routines for various applications are downloadable from an app store.
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital automation
Propelled by advances in digital technologies, robot suppliers and system integrators offer new applications and improve existing ones regarding speed and quality. Connected robots are transforming manufacturing. Robots will increasingly operate as part of a connected digital ecosystem: Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics or 5G mobile networks provide the technological base for optimised performance. The 5G standard will enable fully digitalised production, making cables on the shopfloor obsolete.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds great potential for robotics, enabling a range of benefits in manufacturing. The main aim of using AI in robotics is to better manage variability and unpredictability in the external environment, either in real-time or off-line. This makes AI supporting machine learning play an increasing role in software offerings where running systems benefit, for example, with optimised processes, predictive maintenance or vision-based gripping.
This technology helps manufacturers, logistics providers and retailers dealing with frequently changing products, orders and stock. The greater the variability and unpredictability of the environment, the more likely it is that AI algorithms will provide a cost-effective and fast solution – for example, for manufacturers or wholesalers dealing with millions of different products that change on a regular basis. AI is also useful in environments in which mobile robots need to distinguish between the objects or people they encounter and respond differently.
5. Second life for industrial robots
Since an industrial robot has a service lifetime of up to thirty years, new tech equipment is a great opportunity to give old robots a “second life”. Industrial robot manufacturers like ABB, Fanuc, KUKA, Stäubli or Yaskawa run specialised repair centres close to their customers to refurbish or upgrade used units in a resource-efficient way. This prepare-to-repair strategy for robot manufacturers and their customers also saves costs and resources. To offer long-term repair to customers is an important contribution to the circular economy.