Rise of the robots

Rethink Robots 1
Rethink Robots 1

Exceptional precision and unwavering reliability are helping robots shape the factories of the future. And there are significant robot developments yet to come. Ian Vallely peeps over the horizon.

All the numbers surrounding industrial robots are remarkable. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR), for example, values the worldwide robotic systems market at a whopping £22 billion. By 2018, the IFR reckons around 1.3 million industrial robots will have entered service in factories around the globe and international sales of industrial robots are set almost to double in volume, reaching 400,000 units a year.

These staggering statistics are unsurprising given the compelling list of solid business benefits that industrial robots offer. They dramatically cut the cost of materials and labour, remove workers from difficult and hazardous environments, and increase the quality and throughput of products.

Robots are also in a league of their own in terms of flexible movement and articulation. So, for example, a robot can drill the entire leading edge of a wing more quickly and with greater precision than traditional machines.

While they are not yet as pervasive in aerospace as in the automotive sector, robots nonetheless play an important part in fabricating aero engines, and investment is growing in robots that drill, paint fasten and seal airframes.

Just the job

But what about the accusation by some cynics that robots are taking people’s jobs?

Mike Wilson, sales and marketing manager – general industry UK and Ireland at ABB Robotics, dismisses this: “There have been various studies made which show the use of robots improves competitiveness, leading to increased business and more employment. The jobs that are created are often higher skilled (maintaining, programming etc.) which does require training.”

ABB Assembly2

Besides, Wilson adds, the use of robots has yet to reach a level where social factors are an issue and he doesn’t foresee a step change: “Robots should be viewed as a tool to improve manufacturing in the same way other tools, such as CNC, have been used. The use of PCs has ultimately led to the complete replacement of typing pools, but the employment level in the economy has increased despite no longer requiring many people to perform typing.”

Carl Perrin, director of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering, agrees: “There has been a lot of talk about robots taking people’s jobs, but we don’t believe this. They will be an important element of manufacturing going forward, delivering new solutions and improving productivity.”

The size of the parts and tolerances required in the aerospace sector, as well as the relatively low production rates compared to other sectors, does present different challenges, according to Wilson: “The focus is probably about using robots to assist workers rather than the automation of a facility. This then requires new approaches and solutions to safety to allow robots and workers to operate together rather than the robots being physically separate as they are in an automotive production line.”

The body electric

Indeed, collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – have become one of the hottest topics in the field of robotics and automation.

Phil Webb, professor of aero-structure design and assembly at Cranfield University, says collaborative working and the elimination of hard guarding mean robots can be much more closely integrated into manufacturing processes.

However, he adds: “If you look at a lot of the assembly operations we are currently doing on aircraft structures, we are a long way from full automation. The business case still doesn’t stack up.”

Although he agrees that there are many operations ideally suited to [probably caged] robots, such as accurately positioning large, heavy components: “Using things like 3D camera systems, laser scanning systems and so on, you need to get rid of physical guards because they are simply in the way.”

For Jeremy Hadall, chief technologist digital engineering at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, humans and robots working together offers real opportunities: “You are matching human skills with the power and consistency of a machine. At the moment we see small collaborative robots up to around 15kg of payload.

But he believes many people place too much emphasis on technology: “It’s not about that; it’s about the whole collaborative working environment rather than just the robot.”

ABB Assembly3

Nonetheless, Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer at US-based Rethink Robotics, predicts a bright future for robot technology. He says manufacturers have only been able to automate around 10% of production tasks, requiring the other 90% to be done by humans. “However, smart cobots can adapt to real-world variability, change applications quickly and perform tasks in the same way as people do.

“Collaborative robots are finally enabling manufacturers to begin automating that other 90% of tasks, and providing new avenues for manufacturers to improve their processes and remain competitive.”

So, forget visions of The Terminator rampaging wildly around the factory of the future. While WALL-E, Optimus Prime and C3PO are unlikely to appear in real life anytime soon, it looks as if friendly robots that come in peace and whose only mission will be to help humanity are just around the corner.

10 benefits of industrial robots:

An industrial robot’s ability to position large aerospace components accurately and unceasingly makes it the tool of choice in many aerospace factories. But robots have other business benefits too. For example, they: 1. Increase production output rates; 2. Reduce operating costs; 3. Improve process quality; 4. Improve workplace health and safety; 5. Increase product manufacturing flexibility; 6. Reduce material waste and increase yield; 7. Reduce labour turnover and difficulties in recruiting workers; 8. Save space in high value manufacturing areas; 9. Reduce capital costs (including inventory and work-in-progress); 10. Improve the quality of work for employees.

Robots in action:

Boeing has been granted a patent for a fully-automated fuselage manufacturing plant in which both aeroplanes and robots will be mobile. The factory will have six assembly cells, a feeder line area and a holding area where idle robots will be stationed.

Materials for the fuselage will be received in the feeder line area and each cell will assemble one fuselage. Automated guided vehicles will move the materials in the facility. Once everything is in place, a set of robots will be commanded to move from the holding area to the cell. They will join everything together and fasten the aeroplane structures, a job currently done by hand.

Meanwhile, with an order backlog of almost 7,000 aircraft, Airbus is always looking for ways to improve its manufacturing processes.

The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge invited robotics teams from around the world to create solutions for a real-life manufacturing challenge, and compete live at the IEEE 2016 International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, Sweden in May this year.

The winner – Team Naist from Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Osaka, Japan – proposed an end effector that allows the workpiece and drill to be stabilised using three points of contact to minimise high-frequency vibrations. The solution includes a vision system for precise calibration, and a sensitive robot arm that can operate safely alongside human workers.

The team received a cash prize and will have the opportunity to develop its idea for commercial application within Airbus.

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