Labour intensive manufacturing one side and robotic arms on the other graphic

Will robots be the answer to our next manufacturing revolution?

In 2012, Apple manufacturer FoxConn announced its intention to replace its human-operated assembly line with one million robots. Could this be paving the way for a manufacturing utopia?

When John Kay invented a fast, easy way to weave cloth in 1733, he helped start a new era for manufacturing. His invention, the flying shuttle, where the shuttle on a loom could be returned to the weaver by jerking on a thread, removed the need for two people to work a loom for wider cloth and enabled productivity to be doubled.

Similarly, James Hargreaves later the same century heralded in new efficiencies with his Spinning Jenny, a contraption that enabled more than one thread to be spun at once.

Of course, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was not the end of the story and in recent years innovation has moved a long way from pulling shuttles with pieces of thread. However, the motivation to improve the manufacturing process has continued and the drivers are still efficiency, speed and accuracy.

Optical options

One way that this is happening is through the use of advanced lasers, which are playing an increasing role in manufacturing processes such as cutting, welding and ablation.

One area where lasers can make a significant difference is in micro drilling. Some industries require a very high level of uniformity and reproducibility in the shape and size of holes drilled, which can be a challenge when mechanical drill components become worn over time. With laser-based drills, no components interact with the material and so the laser, and therefore the size of the holes, remains the same.

Lithuania-based Ekspla, which makes rapid-pulse lasers, observed in a recent press release that "laser micromachining is rapidly becoming the material processing technology of choice for numerous small-scale, real-world applications. New advances in diode-pumped solid-state lasers are enabling material processes once found only in research laboratories to be incorporated into growing numbers of production lines".

Short-pulse lasers, which are available for industrial uses with pulse rates in the order of picoseconds and even femtoseconds, have many benefits over older laser systems because they can be very finely focused and controlled. Because the laser pulses are so short and targeted, there is virtually no heat effect on the material being treated, which means that extremely fine features can be incorporated into products. Such developments are particularly important in the electronics industry, for example, to make thinner mobile phone screens and in the manufacture of photovoltaics.

For other industrial applications, laser manufacturers are also pushing to higher and higher powers. For example, IPG Photonics is reported to have recently delivered a 100kW fibre laser to a Japanese customer, a move that is said to represent the highest-power industrial laser ever built.

Another hot topic is the area of additive manufacture or 3D printing. Developments in this area enable new products to be formed easily so that companies can do rapid prototyping or short product runs with a broad range of materials. Companies including Rolls-Royce, General Electric, Siemens and BMW are all said to be looking at the potential of 3D printing in their manufacturing processes.

The robot workers

A big part of the image of modern manufacturing is the idea of robots. "The use of industrial robots has increased steadily in recent years. For our customers, automation is the decisive key to higher productivity and greater cost-effectiveness. It improves product quality, reduces cost-intensive use of materials and minimises the consumption of dwindling energy resources," says Wolfgang Meisen, head of corporate communications at KUKA Robotics in Germany.

"Automation makes work easier, ensures quality, standardises work processes and protects human workers," he adds. "Customers benefit from high quality and throughput, as robots are never lacking in concentration and can work without breaks. The user benefits from the great flexibility of the robots, which can be quickly adapted to new and modified cell concepts."

Meisen explains that industrial robots in the past were used almost exclusively in the automotive sector and in series production. However, robots have now found many new application areas in areas such as foodstuffs, plastics, metalworking, foundry, electronics, medical technology and the entertainment industry.

UK-based RURobots, which develops robotics products for larger firms, has noticed similar trends. Managing director Geoff Pegman said that the main application areas that the company sees today are in the nuclear, food and healthcare industries. "One of the big things that's changed in the last few years is that many more companies are saying 'we need robotics, how do we do it?' whereas previously we had to convince people of the need for robots," he observes.

He says that the broadening of application areas has brought new challenges for robot manufacturers. "Applications were mainly in large firms with robots doing the same thing day in, day out. Now there is much more take up by smaller companies and this changes the way that robots are used. They need to be more flexible because products often have shorter run times."

This, Pegman says, means that the way robots are programmed has to change so they can be tasked more easily and cost-effectively. He says that some people are working on doing this via graphical user interfaces while others are working with physically moving the robot and showing it what to do.

"We work on a more task-based approach," Pegman says. "We show the robot what we want and the robot decides how to do it." He notes that machine vision plays a crucial role in enabling this approach. "We use vision systems and robots together all the time. Vision systems are essential for flexibility."

He gives the example of using robots in the food industry to assemble ready meals and sandwiches, where a robot might be shown a finished product and then left to determine how to assemble the ingredients to do the same. Here, according to Pegman, there is a need for robots to be used by people who aren't particularly highly skilled so operation needs to be straightforward.

"One of the big advantages of robots is hygiene. You know the level of cleanliness of a robot and it is not difficult to make one that can be cleaned with a pressure hose. You can also do things like take the temperature right down so you can get better shelf life for food and lower factory heating costs."

Remote operation of robots is especially important in the nuclear industry, using a robot where you couldn't or wouldn't put a person, particularly on the decommissioning side. Pegman envisages that robots will be seen more at the end-of-life stage of products, particularly in disassembly, as well as in carrying out maintenance for large-capital projects such as wind farms.

The perks of introducing robots

There are several drivers for customers to opt for robots, Pegman says. First, there is the possibility to increase competitiveness. Then there is the option of reshoring – bringing manufacturing back to the home country rather than doing everything manually in other parts of the world where labour is cheaper. There is also the increased use of flexible robotics to do more individual products with short-run batches.

Accuracy and speed are other key benefits, according to Dirk Schoeffeler, who is responsible for customer support at DENSO in Germany.

He describes how one of DENSO's small robots is being used in medical machines being developed by an Italian company. These machines use fingerprint recognition to identify patients and then measure out and prepare their correct medication. "This needs to have very strict hygienic standards and to be very accurate. When it was manual nurses had to prepare 80-100 medicines per day," he says. "This was labour intensive and the chemicals involved, for example chemotherapy drugs, can be dangerous."

The nature of industry is changing too. Products are becoming smaller and there is more focus on precision. Some developments invite the involvement of new players.

Google, for example, is said to have bought seven robotics businesses over the past year. The company is expected to use its newly-acquired technology in manufacturing areas such as electronics assembly.

Innovation in this area is something that consumer electronics giant Apple has firmly in its plans too. The company recently announced that it expects to invest $10.5bn in manufacturing robots and other new technology in 2014. This technology is expected to include equipment to polish the new iPhone 5c's colourful plastic, laser and milling machines to carve the MacBook's aluminum body, and testing gear for the iPhone and iPad camera lens, according to an article by Bloomberg.

Saving energy

Much of the drive behind using technology such as robots is about making manufacturing more efficient and cost effective, which includes reducing the power requirements of factories. Recently, according to KUKA Robotics, there has also been focus on the energy consumption of the robots themselves.

"For decades, the energy consumption of robots was not regarded as important. Today, things are quite different," says Meisen. "For some time now, the topics of energy efficiency and sustainability have significantly influenced robotics development. KUKA has a complete range of six-axis robots in its portfolio, all of which are known for the prudent way that they handle energy. The average energy consumption of the machines is between 1'and 3kWh, depending on the payload class, which puts them on the same footing as many domestic appliances."

Industrial lasers too have made huge strides in energy reduction. "These things used to be very large and power hungry," explains Clive Morrison, field sales engineer at distributer Acal BFi UK. Now, he says, power consumption is coming down, partly due to the use of fibre lasers. "No cooling is required with fibre lasers. They are nearly all air cooled now – at least for the smaller systems – so they can be plugged into the mains socket, which brings the cost down."

Safety at work

The path to greater efficiencies can also cause challenges for health and safety. The rise of machine use during the Industrial Revolution created a raft of new dangers.

Today, worker safety has – hopefully – become a much higher priority for manufacturers but still poses challenges as new tools are developed.

The use of high-power lasers brings with it risks to eyes and other parts of the body so containment and monitoring are important. Indeed this is where robots can help, enabling lasers to be operated remotely. Traditionally, manufacturing robots have needed to be operated away from humans, with protective fences and enclosures.

Alvaro Cruz Lerma, who is responsible for marketing atDENSO Robotics Europe, notes that small robots need to be high speed and precise. These robots will often work on automation lines apart from their operator, with sensors so that when a person crosses limits around it, the robot stops.

However, new developments in robotics are moving towards closer working relationships between humans and machines. "Manufacturing is moving towards robots working more collaboratively with people," says RURobotics' Pegman. "That's where we're going with our research. Robots stuck in cages are a bit inflexible and out of reach when you want to reprogram them."

He notes that car manufacturer Toyota, for example, has developed a collaborative robot designed to work alongside people. The partnership between man and machine means that the robot takes on the repetitive tasks and lifting involved in parts of car assembly, while the human does the tricky parts of checking that things fit correctly.

There are things to learn from in other areas, too. In surgery, for instance, robots are taking on tasks that require high levels of precision and steadiness under the instruction and supervision of an expert surgeon.

"In manufacturing it's going to be a really good collaboration, using the knowledge of people and drudge of robots," Pegman predicts.

According to the British Automation and Robot Association: "In the future robots may also link more intelligently with humans so that they can judge for themselves when it is safe to operate without having comprehensive guarding and safety interlocks everywhere. Some robots are already being developed for the nuclear industry that have tactile sensors covering the arm such that collisions can be detected before any damage is caused."

Job security

Such developments can lead to concerns about job security. When the early textile machines came in, many workers, dubbed Luddites, rioted and smashed the machines up in protest against low wages and increasing unemployment.

There are similar concerns today, although there is welcome news for worried workers. A study by Peter Gorle and Andrew Clive of Metra Martech on behalf of the International Federation of Robotics found that increasing use of robotics has led – and looks set to continue to lead – to increased employment, either directly or indirectly.

The study of the industrial use of robots in six industrialised countries between 2000 and 2016 found that, although robots replace humans in menial tasks and their use nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011, the resulting possibilities led to the creation of more new jobs in areas such as robotics, product development and sales.

According to the study's authors, the three driving forces for using robotics, whether or not they generate new jobs, are: where the product cannot be made to satisfactory precision, consistency and cost, without robotics; where the conditions under which the current work is done are unsatisfactory but where a robot will operate; and where particularly a developed country manufacturing unit with high labour costs is threatened by a unit in a low labour cost area. 

Cruz Lerma of DENSO agrees: "Some people believe that robots will steal the jobs of humans but we believe that people will be assigned to more satisfying tasks and that robots will complement, not replace, us."

Apart from anything else, there is still a huge need for people to work on developing new robotics technology.

According to Meisen of KUKA Robotics, "with the expansion into new industries and areas of robotic automation, there are new requirements for the development of robots and industrial production benefits from these recent technological trends in robotics. Robots, and even the control units, become smaller and more compact. That minimises the required floor space and offers opportunities to integrate more robots and increase the productivity".

He continues: "Multi-functional robot controls can take over additional tasks which are needed for a complete robot-based automation solution, such as process control, motion control of additional axis, NC-motion, logic control, safety control. Integrated solutions reduce investment costs, reduce the communication effort between the different components, lead to an improved process quality (since motion and process control are optimally synchronised), and facilitate configuration and diagnosis since the operator has only one user-interface.

"Compliant and sensor-based motion enables programming of complex assembly tasks in significantly shorter times than programming with position-controlled approaches. More flexible logistics concepts can be realised with mobile platforms in industrial production compared to inflexible conveyor solutions."

As the British Automation and Robot Association observes: "The range of possible applications for robots is rapidly expanding and it is imperative that a world class manufacturing company should keep an eye on developments and implement robots wherever benefits can be gained."

If this continues, perhaps new products will be made with technologies that are as far removed from modern manufacturing systems as today's advanced robots and lasers are from systems that remove the need for two people to work a loom.

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