Robots of future will cost less, run safer, improve productivity and adapt their operations on the fly.
Contributed by Donna Ritson, President, DDR Communications
I recently had the pleasure of collaborating with PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, on a research study exploring the state of the robotics industry, its key markets, recent technology developments, and where the future lies.
Our project involved interviews with many interested parties that included robot builders, OEMs, technology providers and system integrators, processing and packaging professionals, academics and, of course, end users. Participants represented a variety of market sectors, from traditional heavy industries to manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and household products.
What did we learn? In brief, the robotics market is poised for a significant transformation, emerging beyond the automotive industry into new, non-traditional industries such as food and beverage, consumer goods, life sciences, electronics, and packaging. Here’s a closer look at some of our findings.
Times are changing
Robotics is no longer just a tool on the plant floor. It is a force in the industry driving a revolution of change in manufacturing. We’re now in the age of smart manufacturing, with advances such as the Industrial Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and machine learning. The explosion in e-commerce, and how it is changing the future of manufacturing, is a major driver.
A new culture and processes are pivotal when implementing smart manufacturing. According to our research, here are the top improvements users expect robots to achieve.
Reduce costs. The cost of robotics is going down, and some manufacturers say usage will likely double in the next 10 years. Robots and cobots are also filling the labor void. The absence of skilled workers is top-of-mind across the industry and will continue to drive the use of robotics to supplement and replace human labor. We constantly hear that labor is hard to find, and finding skilled labor is even harder. The trend is certainly driving an increased interest in robotics.
Improve safety. Workers doing repetitive tasks in a manufacturing operation could likely be taken over by a robot, and that will improve worker safety. And there are practical situations where it’s just safer to rely on a robot, such as in many cutting, packing, picking and stacking applications.
Increase output and quality. Robots work tirelessly and don’t need to stop for lunch breaks or shift changes. And they do the same thing all the time, exactly the same way. That can increase throughput and improve productivity, quality and consistency.
Enable flexible manufacturing. Users and consumers want more variety. We want convenience, quality, and we want six different sizes in one package. It’s amazing what that does to the manufacturing mind when you must rely on shorter product runs. Especially with the emergence of AI and self-learning robots, this is creating a much more flexible manufacturing environment. The evolution of the Industrial Internet of Things, with devices being digital, connected, integrated, talking and learning together, is driving this as well. The declining cost of robots is encouraging that in the marketplace, as will 5G networking capabilities.
Robots continue to get smarter, more effective, and more integrated with the production line. Programming is getting easier — some people say not easy enough — but programming is certainly improving and not as complicated as it used to be.
Smart robots equipped with advanced sensors feeding data to complex algorithms powering AI and machine learning will further improve work processes. AI is on the threshold of much wider adoption. As of last year, according to our research, only 11% of users have deployed artificial intelligence in their processing and packaging environment/equipment, so there’s certainly a lot of room for growth. But many are embracing related concepts, as 32% report using digital twinning, a type of 3D modeling, and 40% of OEM engineering departments said they are using virtual simulation models.
Tooling is getting smarter, too. Incorporating an array of sensors, end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) now on the drawing board will communicate with a controller, learn from the feedback and make adaptive changes. It will have greater dexterity and agility, capable of performing a large number of tasks alongside human labor. And it will be more hygienic. Some EOAT has now been approved for direct food contact, so it’s moving up the line, out of case packing and palletizing into actual food contact for pick-and-place applications.
Robots are also getting more perceptive. 3D vision and color cameras are able to recognize objects with greater precision and accuracy to perform repetitive tasks, freeing up humans for elevated responsibilities. Advanced software lets machines inspect, transfer and align products for much more consistent product quality across entire pick-and-place applications.
The advent of 5G network speeds means data-gathering is our future. With 5G wireless networks, the interaction of how data is transported and received at a robot becomes instantaneous, so systems can actually take corrective action in real-time. Establishing a comprehensive 5G wireless network will be a crucial step toward lights-out facilities.
That goes hand-in-hand with advances in AI capabilities that will pave the way for growth in autonomous robots. For instance, they’ll be adaptive. Increasingly, robots aren’t constrained to doing a single task but will be programmed to handle multiple functions. And they’ll be capable of learning. If a process is inefficient they can, without human intervention, make changes on-the-fly to operate more efficiently.
AI is also being used to advance EOAT self-changeovers. In the packaging and processing industries, production runs are getting shorter and downtime to reconfigure a line is costly. There is now the capability where a robot can understand what’s coming down the line, change its own end-of-arm tooling to meet the immediate need, and then perform its task without missing a beat. These capabilities are remarkable in terms of increasing the speed of production, accuracy and quality.
Such machines will also have unified control systems. The number-one gripe from industry is the lack of a unified platform. Right now, the Open Industry 4.0 Alliance, a collaboration between OPC UA and TSN (OPC Foundation and CC-Link IE time-sensitive networking) are looking to bring greater device and system interoperability.
From a physical standpoint, many robots of the future will be smaller, and cobots are gaining acceptance. These downsized robots have gotten a lot of attention just because they’re affordable (and are kind of cute), and are versatile enough to handle many different applications. They’re moving into manufacturing areas targeted specifically for cobots’ shorter movements, smaller products and interaction with humans. Newer versions will meet higher hygienic standards in the food and pharmaceutical industries.
We’ll see more robots and cobots that are mobile: untethered and wireless, with 7th axis movements creating a flexible manufacturing environment. That’s going to be interesting. If they’re untethered and wireless, how will innovations in pneumatics keep up with an untethered robot? How will the air supply move with that robot to a different location in the plant?
And robots are going to be safer to operate around humans. The machines can learn tasks efficiently using AI to not only improve processes but to avoid collisions and reduce risk. Using this model, robots can be introduced almost anywhere.
For example, a robot will be aware if a worker walks into its space and will go into “safe modes” of slower speed, limited force and more controlled actions, but resume full performance when no humans are present. And sensors on workers’ clothing let collaborative robots work side-by-side with humans and stop immediately if they make contact. End effectors might track human hands and identify safe distances with vision systems or reduce speeds and forces.
These are some examples of really interesting, game-changing technology. We know that Industry 4.0 is bringing a fully integrated collaborative system, and it’s going to have real-time data response and analytics, and it’s going to combine IT networks and systems, all coming together and working more cohesively. All of these innovations aren’t typical of today’s manufacturing facilities, quite yet. However, this technology will soon be available and become mainstream.
That said, where can we find opportunities for robotics? In this study, we looked at current robotics usage versus that in 2014. Some areas increased a little, some a lot. Overall, 88% of the companies surveyed are using robots somewhere on their manufacturing lines, and 26% of those companies were also using cobots. Areas of interest include:
Processing. Percent of companies using robotics and, in some cases, cobots in processing applications increased to 27% from 10%. Applications include cutting and shaping, dispensing, loading/unloading, sorting, cleaning, polishing and finishing. EOAT improvements for direct food contact are broadening the deployment of robots, and the upstream processing area is a target for cobots.
Primary packaging use increased slightly to 53% from 44%. These are areas like pick-in-place, direct food contact, maneuvering a product into its primary package, as well as container loading, kit assembly and vision inspection.
Secondary packaging is where robotics really started, including carton loading, case packing and sealing, tray loading and variety packing/bundling. Use has jumped to 70% from 48% over the past five years. Such applications are moving towards smarter technology, often using pneumatics, controlling diverter gates on material handling and sorting systems; moving devices such as sealers and grippers on packaging machines; and controlling automated vision guided vehicles in warehousing. Cobot numbers at the end of the line are growing, and they’re suited across the entire line.
Transport packaging. This involves building efficient pallet patterns, such as reducing palletizing time, minimizing carton gaps and increasing productivity and flexibility. Again, this is a significant area for robotics, now at 73% versus 66% in 2014.
Roadblocks to implementation
If robotics capabilities are quickly rising and costs are dropping, why isn’t everyone adopting them? The top factor we see hindering greater robot implementation is justifying the investment cost with an acceptable ROI. ROI is typically expected in two years, but some companies realize the full return in less than one year. Variables used to justify ROI include lower labor costs, higher throughput, improved quality and reduced waste, fewer worker injuries, and measurable uptime.
Other obstacles to more-widespread use include lack of internal expertise, finding the right applications, the time required for installation and training, and overcoming skepticism.
Big companies have robots in all their facilities, and probably on every line. But the fact is small and medium-sized manufacturers, to keep pace, need to supplement manual processes with targeted robotics for greater flexibility and improved output. They need to create a manufacturing environment that is automated and robotic, particularly if prices are going down.
Nonetheless, a lack of expertise is a common denominator that challenges manufacturers. As the deployment of robotics continues across the plant floor, professionals with a tailored set of skills will be needed in the future to design, integrate, and maintain a fleet of robotics.
We’ve heard in our interviews that one of the biggest obstacles for manufacturers is the perception that, “I don’t have the talent and the capability of installing robots.” It takes time, and you have to do it right, so evaluate internal talent and partner with outside experts who can help put robotics in place. As an added benefit, it would help stimulate inventiveness and embrace the digital transformation coming to manufacturing.
Identifying the root cause of production losses is a way to start. Analyze bottlenecks and identify operational improvements that will have the biggest impact. Prioritize where it would make the most sense to add a robot or to add automation.
Cobots can be an entry point. Physically smaller robotics are gaining popularity as SMEs in particular show interest in utilizing flexible, intelligent robots to enhance their manufacturing processes, provide assistance to their human employees and alleviate labor shortages. More cobot installations would be considered if cycle rates increased and users become more comfortable with the safety parameters of unguarded cobots.
The majority of survey participants predict adoption of cobots will grow. But about a quarter felt cobots would be limited to niche applications, ideal for slower applications with a lighter payload — mainly for assembly and packaging. And 22% were hesitant or unsure. More development is needed, they indicated, to ensure human safety.
And there’s still some skepticism. Do I really want to replace my workers with a robot? That can be a serious concern as many people fear robots will eliminate jobs. The fact is, more workers will be needed to run the robots.
Robotics is quickly transforming manufacturing. If you’re considering adding robots, but are unsure and put off the decision for a year or two, you might miss the window of how quickly that could have advanced your manufacturing processes, and improved your competitive standing and the bottom line.
Pneumatics for future robotics
Robots are becoming more versatile, adaptive and teachable. They’re incorporating AI for self-learning servo drives that can adapt and correct machine conditions in real time, and setting new benchmarks for robot dexterity. Pneumatics needs to play a key role.
Certainly the Industrial Internet of Things is driving pneumatics, like other components and systems, to become more intelligent. Sensors are being added to pneumatic valves and actuators to provide more complete data about changes in device performance over time. The latest sensors designed to mount on cylinders, linear slides and grippers provide continuous position tracking and support fast and easy sensor maintenance or replacement.
Smart pneumatics can combine with a robot’s vision and touch capabilities to accomplish machine learning, with systems capable of accurately locating and gripping an object, measuring force and adjusting counter-pressure with exacting precision.
Pneumatic systems will be able to generate additional data points across production lines, gathering information such as diagnostics, usage statistics and lifetime data, and be invaluable in terms of robotics integration, interactiveness and communication across a manufacturing line.
The proliferation of the IIoT in general will increase the use of pneumatics due to robotics growth and a greater end-user focus on energy savings and operational efficiency. Pneumatics suppliers must ensure their products can communicate, exchange data and have smarter learning skills, and are ready to move seamlessly into this digital, transformative robotic world.
Get a close-up look at robotics
PACK EXPO East 2020, scheduled for March 3 to 5 in Philadelphia, provides a great opportunity to explore robot technology and how it relates to packaging challenges. Produced by PMMI, the event will host 7,000 attendees and 400 exhibiting companies and offer a range of educational and networking opportunities. For more information, visit www.packexpoeast.com.