As industry moves into the era of Smart Manufacturing, there are several emerging technologies that will be integral components of this cognitive manufacturing environment. One of those technologies is the next generation of industrial and collaborative robots (where humans and machines will work side by side collaboratively and safely). But the bigger picture may well prove to be how the use of robotics is steadily moving beyond the walls of the factory. Robots are being used in many applications like warehousing, biotech and pharmaceutical, training for medical personnel, law enforcement, working in hazardous and contaminated areas, customer service in hotels and retail, and surveillance. Robots can now perform complex surgical procedures guided remotely by a human surgeon as well as help customers with their shopping—picking items and delivering them.
This progression can also be seen in industrial spaces, where increasing numbers of robots have moved beyond the traditional caged production robots requiring protective isolation from the human workforce. Today, Amazon has deployed more than 200,000 robots in its warehouses. The retail giant built many of its warehouses specifically for mobile robots that can autonomously transport entire shelf units and move them around the warehouse intelligently to complete fulfillment and delivery. Amazon felt the robots it used in its warehouses were so vital to its success that it bought the robot company (Kiva). A significant list of robotic suppliers is now offering a range of collaborative and multifunctional robots capable of performing more human-like tasks for the benefit of industry, business, and society.
Next generation robots: smarter, agile, and untethered
Robotics technology and capability has clearly entered the era of the intelligent machine. This new generation of robots is empowered with AI and machine learning allowing them to move beyond preprogrammed kinematics and motion to become adaptive machines that can literally “think on their feet.” Not only are these robots smarter, they are mobile and able to act as human assistants, aiding their human worker counterparts in tasks across a broad spectrum of work.
The Association for Advancing Automation recently offered up a simple test for whether a system/machine possesses intelligence. Is the system reactive, proactive, and social? If it’s reactive, it can sense and respond to its environment. If it’s proactive, it can anticipate a future state and guide its actions either away from or toward that projected scenario. And, if it’s social, it can share information and engage with other intelligent agents—both human and machine—and direct or learn from the data and action of others.
Robotics suppliers that have provided conventional industrial robots for years, such as KUKA, ABB, Fanuc, and Seiko are all making collaborative robots for the industrial market. Other robotics providers like Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics, and Precise Automation have focused on collaborative robots from the beginning. Rethink offers its Baxter and Sawyer robots that have very human-like mobility, while companies like Boston Dynamics have taken the agile, mobile, collaborative humanoid robot (Atlas) to a new level. These robots can perform a complete= range of tasks with excellent dexterity and agility all while being able to move about and navigate a work environment to move boxes and objects as well as a human worker. Smaller and more lightweight mobile cobots like the Boston Dynamics Spot are suitable for inspection tasks and continuous monitoring of a job site, documenting as-built information and interacting with engineering models. Spot has a robotic arm that can lift up to 10 kilos and pick up and deposit trash.
Activities like logistics, cleaning and waste management, and movement of hazardous materials all contain subsets of tasks that are considered to address the dull, dirty, and dangerous industrial tasks. As these kinds of tasks are increasingly assigned to the cobots, it will free up human workers to focus on more important aspects of manufacturing and processing operations.