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New possibilities in productivity and flexibility

15 August 2023

Ongoing advances in robotic automation are opening new possibilities for manufacturing and logistics companies to enhance their productivity and flexibility and respond to changing market conditions. Julian Ware looks at some examples of recent developments and explains the benefits they are bringing for companies of all sizes

FACED WITH a mounting raft of challenges from labour and skills shortages through to supply chain disruption, the lingering effects of COVID and the need to make their operations more sustainable, manufacturers and distribution companies are under growing pressure to use automated technologies to improve their ability to be able to adapt to changing market conditions.  

Offering the potential for faster, flexible, and more efficient production with less waste, robots present an ideal solution for creating adaptable and scalable operations that can help companies to respond quickly to change. Statistics from the 2021 World Robotics Report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) 2021 highlight a global increase in the rate of robot adoption, with robot density – calculated as the average number of robots per 10,000 workers – almost doubling between 2015 and 2020. Going forward, this growth is predicted to accelerate further, with estimates from research organisation Research and Markets estimating annual market growth of 12.1 percent to 2030 to reach a value of USD 88.54 billion.  

A major driver for this growth will be the increased utility of robots, as developments in technology, from software through to new options such as mobile robotics, open new possibilities for deployment in an expanded range of applications.

New technologies, new possibilities

Ongoing developments in robotic hardware, software and AI technologies are opening new possibilities for deploying robots in manufacturing applications. Today’s robotic solutions can be used to achieve highly automated end-to-end manufacturing, with options encompassing everything from low payload cobots and fast picking Delta robots through to modular solutions and complete cells for handling multiple operations. The development of smart AGVs and mobile robots (AMRs) is also helping to boost efficiency, enabling the seamless transfer of parts or sub-assemblies between different production stations, and ensuring that they are delivered where they need to be, on time and without error. 

Globally, the benefits that this joined up approach to production can bring is seeing a steady growth across a variety of industries, including food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, electronics, logistics and construction as companies look for ways to integrate robots into their operations.

A new level of simplicity

Innovations such as cobots and simplified programming and user interfaces are also helping to address many of the concerns around complexity and affordability that have deterred SMEs from investing in robotic automation, providing them with an easy and scalable path for learning how to integrate robotic automation into their operations. Cobots especially provide the opportunity for inexperienced users to tackle the ‘low hanging fruit’ of simpler applications, with the experience gained enabling them to develop their understanding of what can be achieved with more complex set-ups.

Where programming is concerned, developments in tools using techniques such as block-based programming are making it much easier for first time users to introduce robotic automation into their production lines without the need for specialist programming skills or any knowledge of RAPID code. ABB’s Wizard easy programming software for its cobots and small IRB 1100 industrial robot, for example, utilises Blockly, an open-source visual coding method that presents programming language or code as interlocking blocks, which can be used to quickly create robot application programs without the need for any previous programming experience.

Easier commissioning with software

Software is also helping to address many of the pain points that have traditionally been associated with designing and commissioning robotic installations. Tools such as digital twins, Virtual and Augmented Reality viewers, and offline programming and simulation are enabling companies to find ways to optimize robot performance by enabling them to develop and test different configurations to find the best solution for their requirements. This ability to model and refine robotic processes to find the optimum configuration is particularly beneficial for industries subject to rapid changes in consumer demands, such as the food and beverage and logistics industries. In these industries especially, requirements can change quickly due to shifting consumer demands, requiring production or handling lines to be adapted to accommodate new products or packages.

Boosting productivity with robots

One of the key benefits of robotic automation is its ability to enhance workforce productivity.  Ongoing developments in robotic usability, performance and capabilities including vision, force control and path following have helped to broaden the applicability of robots across a range of tasks and applications, enabling them to be used to fill gaps in workforces caused by skills shortages. In many cases, this can enable companies to make better use of their existing skilled workforces by using robots either to take over lower value or dirty and more dangerous tasks or else to provide additional much needed production capacity.

The possibilities of robotic automation are also increasingly being realized by companies outside of the traditional manufacturing and logistics sphere.

The construction sector, for example, is increasingly looking for ways to use robots to help tackle the industry’s growing skills crisis. By taking over tedious and potentially dangerous tasks, robots are enabling companies to make better use of their existing resources by deploying them to handle other higher value tasks.

Furthermore, by combining robots with digital technologies such as 3D printing and building design software, construction companies have also been able to build an expanded range of structures with less waste, enabling them to increase their offering to customers whilst lowering their production costs and improving their environmental and quality performance.  

Preparing for a robotic future

With many companies citing a shortage of expert robot operators as a key reason for not switching to robotic automation, there is a need to ensure that both current and future generations of workers can access the training they need to be able to use robots.

For this reason, robot manufacturers, including ABB, have devoted considerable effort to designing training programmes aimed at all levels of ability, enabling operators to develop their skills from basic through to advanced levels. At the grassroots level, specific efforts have also gone into developing packages for schools, colleges and universities, combining both robots and programming tools to equip students with the knowledge and experience needed to develop, build and maintain robotic solutions for manufacturing applications.

Julian Ware is UK and Ireland Sales Manager at ABB Robotics