Today's manufacturers in numerous industries are gaining rapid increases in productivity by taking advantage of automation technologies. One of these automation technologies, robotics, is a key factor leading the way in the twenty-first century. Firmly established as a critical manufacturing technology, robotics is gaining acceptance by the workforce, garnering praise for its reliability, and being utilized more extensively in medium and small companies.
As manufacturing assembly has grown increasingly complex, the need for new and expanded capabilities, particularly in automated assembly systems, has become evident. As components get smaller, as in micro-manufacturing, it is required that greater precision, more flexibility and higher throughput are achieved. Manual assembly no longer suffices for a great many of manufacturing's current requirements. Functions formerly performed by humans, especially difficult, dangerous, monotonous, or tedious tasks, are now often assumed by robots or other mechanical devices that can be operated by humans or computers. Robots can take the place of humans in extreme settings or life threatening situations involving nuclear contaminants, corrosive chemicals, or poisonous fumes.
While the automotive industry is the largest market for robot manufacturers, other industries are increasing their use of robotics. According to reports from the Robotics Industries Association, industries such as semiconductors and electronics, metals, plastics and rubber, food and consumer goods, life sciences and pharmaceuticals, and aerospace are all finding ways that their services can be enhanced and improved through robotics.
Some of these manufacturers are also improving the quality of their products by using robots with powerful machine-vision inspection equipment or by linking their robots to statistical process control systems. Robot fixtures can move quickly and fluidly without sacrificing accuracy. Servo-driven positioners can be programmed to handle more than one model on the same line, something especially important to lean organizations. This programmability also allows its users to set up the systems again and again for different applications. In most cases, converting robots from one application to another can be completed with minimal downtime, requiring only programming changes. Benefits include reduced capital expenses (you don't have to buy new fixtures for new applications), floor space requirements, lead-time, component expenses, and training investment.
Despite the fact that robotics technology was developed in the United States, Japan became the first nation to actually embrace robotics; many observers view this as a significant factor in Japan's emergence as a global manufacturing power. Today Japan is not only one of the major users of manufacturing robotics but it is also the dominant manufacturer of industrial robots.
In the early 1980s, 70 percent of robot orders were for use in the automotive industry. During this time, robot manufacturers simultaneously improved their reliability and performance and sought to lessen their dependence on the automotive industry by focusing on specific niche markets. By concentrating on applications other than spot welding, painting, and dispensing, the robotics industry was able to develop products that could successfully handle not only assembly, but also material handling and material removal. Spot welding, which for a long time was the major application of robotics, eventually was eclipsed by materials handling. This was a clear indication that the robotics industry was indeed becoming less dependent on the automotive industry, since materials handling is used in a wide and varied range of industries. Additionally, non-manufacturing applications started to become viable in such areas as security, health care, environmental cleanup, and space and undersea exploration.
Advances in robot control technology, simulation, and offline programming made robots easier to program, maintain, and use. Simulation use allowed for the discovery of potential problems before the robots were actually installed.
Though less dependent on the automotive industry than in the past, the robotics industry still finds its widest application in that market. However, driven by the need for increased manufacturing efficiency, the automakers and automotive-related industries are moving away from hard automation in favor of flexible automation. Analysts predict greater use of robots for assembly, paint systems, final trim, and parts transfer in the automotive industry. Realistic robot simulation is making an impact by integrating vehicle design and engineering into manufacturing.
One reason for increased practicality of robots is the availability to control machinery and systems through personal or laptop computers. According to Waurzyniak, some advances in computer-guided systems are robots with force sensing capabilities and 3-D and 2-D vision-guidance capabilities. NASA is using sophisticated computer-guided robot controllers for its Space Shuttle Endeavor and the Mars landing craft. Each of these systems utilize computer control of some sort, ranging from simple machine-specific tracking, to shop-wide data collection across a variety of machinery and instruments, to galactic monitoring and control in a unique, outer space environment.
The Robotic Industries Association reports that an estimated 144,000 industrial robots are in use in the United States in 2004, up from 82,000 in 1998. In 2004, North American manufacturers purchased 14, 838 robots, valued at nearly $1 billion, a 20 percent increase from 2003 and the industry's second best unit total ever. There has been a 152 percent increase in new robots ordered and a 78 percent increase in revenue in 2004 as well.
The key factors driving this growth in robotics are mass customization of electronic goods (specifically communications equipment), the miniaturization of electronic goods and their internal components, and the re-standardization of the semiconductor industry. The food and beverage industry is also in the midst of an equipment-spending boom in an effort to improve operating efficiencies. Robot installations for such tasks as packaging, palletizing, and filling are expected to see continued growth. In addition, increases are anticipated in the aerospace, appliance, and non-manufacturing markets.
To some, the future of robotics has never looked brighter. Production of bipedal robots that mimic human movement are being created around the globe. Honda Motor Company's ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) robot is considered the world's most advanced humanoid robot. It can climb stairs, kick, walk, talk, dance and even communicate and interact via its voice and facial recognition systems. Honda plans to one day market the robot as an assisted-living companion for the disabled or elderly.
Other robots that simulate human movement have been created at Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Holland's Delft University of Technology. In a March 2005 article in Machine Design, the creators of the three robots describe the mechanics utilized in their designs and detail how their robots use less energy than ASIMO, although they do not have the range of capabilities of the ASIMO robot. These variations in mobility indicate promise and potential in a variety of robotic applications for the future.
Chip Walter's article, "You, robot", discusses renowned robotics researcher, Hans Moravec, Carnegie Mellon University scientist and cofounder of the university's Robotics Institute. Moravec is known for his longstanding prediction that super-robots that can perceive, intuit, adapt, think, and even simulate feelings, much like humans, will be practicable before the year 2050. His confidence in his predictions led him to open his own robotics firm in 2003, the Seegrid Corporation, to assist him in fulfilling his claims. His path toward that vision is to start simply—to create mobile carts with software and vision systems that can be 'taught' to follow paths and navigate independently. Moravec believes that machines will evolve in small steps, eventually reaching the levels of human intelligence and movement. His bedrock belief, on which he bases his technology, is "… if robots are going to succeed, the world cannot be adapted to them; they have to adapt to the world, just like the rest of us."
Stuart Brown reports that navigation technologies such as the global positioning system (GPS) are allowing industrial robots to move around in the world. GPS in conjunction with inertial navigation systems (INS) and the booming field of silicon micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) are impacting robotics from simple automated lawn mowers to complex airplane control systems. Robotics are reaching the micro-level with the exploration of robotic water 'insects' equipped with biomechanical sensors that could be used as environmental monitors. The current prototype weighs less than a gram and draws power from ultra-thin electrical wires. An affordable and time-saving alternative to locating gas leaks has been developed in a pipe-inspecting robot crawler; equipped with multiple joints and video cameras, it easily navigates sharp turns and narrow pipes while projecting images of pipe integrity to a monitor. Plans for the future include a sensor that will detect corrosion and cracks in the pipes that do not appear in the video images.
Robots have come of age. While they were initially used for fairly simple tasks such as welding and spray-painting automobiles, these machines have increased tremendously in ability over the last decade, reaching further and broader than simple auto applications. Robotics will remain vital in the decades to come due to expanding scientific fields and increasing demand for more affordable and sophisticated methods of accomplishing common tasks.
SEE ALSO: Lean Manufacturing and Just-in-Time Production ; Quality and Total Quality Management ; Simulation
R. Anthony Inman
Revised by Monica C. Turner
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