Industrial robots have come a long way since their initial introduction in the automotive industry. In the last few years, robots have become smaller, more affordable, and more widely available. Their capabilities have steadily expanded through improvements to machine vision, EoAT technology, AI/machine learning, durability, and safety, according to PMMI Business Intelligence’s 2022 report “Robots and Cobots - An Automated Future.”
Robots have also become simpler to program and operate, reducing the level of technical skill needed for successful deployment. As these robot capabilities progress, robots are steadily expanding into new applications and even entirely new industries
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Available, Affordable, and Simple
Robots have become more readily accessible in recent years, with availability increasing and cost decreasing. In addition, robots are steadily moving toward simple, intuitive programming that does not require a highly specialized skill set to configure and operate. These advancements have enabled small and medium sized enterprises across industries to more readily add robotics to their operations.
Robots that adhere to IP69k washdown standards are now common, enabling their use in the pharmaceutical, food, and beverage industries. These robots are able to withstand the harsh chemicals required for washdown and are designed to eliminate any dead spots where liquid could collect. The most advanced of these robots can even wash down their own work cell and themselves, all without the need for human intervention.
Smarter Robots: AI and Machine Learning
AI and machine learning have been key developments in robotics that are continually expanding the realm of possibility for robot applications. Closely intertwined, AI and machine learning allow robots to adapt to new scenarios by building on a constantly increasing volume of relevant data. These technologies have opened up a world of complicated tasks for robots, from dynamically picking items the robot has never encountered before to rapidly and accurately inspecting incoming and outgoing products on a line.
A Safer Robot
Improvements to safety design and proximity sensing have steadily broken down the barrier between robot and human tasks. While the early days of robotics required large cordoned off safety cells for robots to operate in, the newest modern class of cobots can safely and efficiently work alongside human employees. These cobots are increasingly compact, modular, and mobile, enabling their deployment to virtually any part of a manufacturing operation.
Picking with Precision
Advancements in EoAT technology have dramatically expanded the picking capabilities of robots, enabling their use in a much wider variety of markets than ever before. Tactile sensing allows robots to pick delicate and odd-shaped items like baked goods and fragile electronic wafers without sacrificing speed and accuracy. Modern robots can even pack multiple cases at once, holding up to three dozen items at the same time and accurately placing them into separate cases.
Despite this amazing growth, advancing technology still stands to carry robotics to entirely new frontiers of possibility. While the following examples are by no means certainties that will come to pass, the robotics industry is awash in visionary speculation of what robots of the future will be able to accomplish.
The Seventh Axis: AMRs Everywhere
While seven-axis robots already exist through solutions such as attaching a six-axis robot to a tracked, linear gantry, the future of seven-axis robots could be even more dynamic. There are already some rudimentary deployments of robotic arms attached to mobile, wheeled platforms. As AMR technology improves in the next decade to the point where AMRs can reactively navigate their environment and then spontaneously plot and resume a new course in real time, they could be mounted with six-axis arms to enable fully autonomous redeployment of robotic units to all areas of an operation.
The horizon for AI and machine learning applications of the future is wide open. Tools such as elaborate, deep-learning neural networks may soon be available for standard manufacturing robotics, with the potential to drastically expand the intelligence of robots. It is not impossible that robots of the future will be able to evaluate a new task, assess the environment the task will be conducted in, and then formulate a process to accomplish that task — all without any human intervention.
Mastery of Human Senses
Robots can already see and touch at levels fast-approaching human capability, but that may soon expand to other human senses. Robots capable of hearing — and most importantly — understanding unscripted, spontaneous verbal commands are a possibility. Robots of the future could even be equipped with olfactory capabilities, enabling them to detect dangerous emissions or contamination long before they would ever register in a human nose.
New materials are currently under development that have the ability to self-repair tears and breaks. With the support of future AI networks, these materials could be applied to robots, enabling a robot to detect damage in its “skin” and initiate a repair sequence. Advancements in sensor technology could even enable robots to repair and replace their own hardware proactively, such as detecting a loosening screw and independently tightening it before damage occurs.
Source: PMMI Business Intelligence, 2022 Robots and Cobots: An Automated Future.
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