Implementing Robots Throughout Manufacturing

May 14, 2019
Robotics are not just for the automotive industry anymore. With a wave of innovations in dexterity, vision, mobility, connectivity and safety, robots are finding a place in a wide range of industries that are becoming increasingly aware of their benefits.

Though the automotive industry has long been at the forefront of robotics in manufacturing, 2018 saw a significant change in the robotics market. Sure, carmakers are still on board with automation throughout the plant, but now almost half of the robotics market (47 percent) is non-automotive.

“Consumer packaged goods companies are really starting to deploy and add robots,” said Donna Ritson, president of DDR Communications. While the market overall saw a third more robots deployed in 2018, that number almost doubled in some CPG markets, she added.

Speaking at the Automation World Conference this week in Chicago, Ritson detailed an industrial world in which manufacturers are taking advantage of the greater dexterity, vision, mobility, connectivity and safety of today’s robots to reap such benefits as increased throughput, reduced labor costs, improved worker safety, improved product quality and consistency, and more flexible manufacturing.

DDR Communications conducted research on behalf of PMMI to find out what the industry had to say about robotics. The 2019 Robotics: Innovation 2 Implementation report explores input from a wide variety of sources—end users, OEMs, contract packagers, robot manufacturers, automation suppliers, industry experts, university innovators and more—to detail the significant transformation taking place.

“Robotics is really going to bring a revolution of change,” Ritson said. “It’s no longer just a tool. It’s really going to be something that’s going to change the manufacturing floor of the future.”

A new culture is starting, Ritson said, with robots that are easier to use and cheaper to deploy. “Likely, the industry is going to double in the next five years for robotics,” she said.

Current workforce issues are a significant part of the trend. We hear daily about the labor skills gap and the overall labor shortage. Robotics will play a meaningful role in filling that need. “They can’t find people and turnover is so great that they’re looking at automation and they’re looking at robots,” Ritson said of manufacturers.

But those end users are desperate for help. There’s a lack of internal expertise, and they need help justifying the investment, finding the right applications and training their workers to use the technology, Ritson said. The time needed for installation and training is also a top-ranking obstacle to robotics adoption, as is overcoming skepticism.

Though different companies are approaching ROI in many different ways, the report identifies six key variables commonly used to justify ROI in robotics:

  • Reduced labor costs
  • Increased throughput
  • Total cost of ownership
  • Improved quality/reduced waste
  • Decreased worker injuries
  • Measurable uptime

ROI was typically expected within two years, Ritson noted, but it was often fully realized within a year.

Innovations in robotics

Robots are becoming more and more mainstream, and a wide range of innovations are helping spur this along. “They will be smarter, more selective, more integrated, versatile, stronger, teachable, compact, affordable, more hygienic,” Ritson described. “Programming is also getting easier. It might not be easier enough…but it’s certainly getting easier.”

Robots in the future will be more autonomous—more mobile and agile, with more dexterity. “There are even robots out there already that can get a signal from down the line and they understand that they have to change their end-of-arm tooling,” Ritson said. “This is what’s coming.”

Color cameras and 3D vision are helping with product quality and consistency. And robots are even getting more perceptive along the way. “They see what they need to do, they fix what they need to do, they understand what they need to fix and then they fix it,” Ritson said.

There’s a world of innovation in the works. Ritson and her team spoke with innovation centers and universities developing new technologies to learn about the robotic capabilities on the horizon. In one example, developers taught a robot how to play Jenga—a very interactive game that requires a high level of dexterity. Rather than program it to do the required pushing and pulling, they equipped it with artificial intelligence to provide advanced learning in a shorter period of time. In other innovative examples, robots were equipped with sensors so sensitive to the touch, they can pick up raspberries without crushing them. “Think about how you could apply that in manufacturing,” Ritson urged.

Though fulfilling labor needs is a significant driver behind the growth of robotics in manufacturing, it does not mean that manufacturing jobs are going away. What industry will need going forward are problem solvers, intuitive thinkers and trained specialists, Ritson said. “We will have to retrain workers and redeploy them where they can be of greater use,” she said. Future skills will be needed to maintain, operate, deploy and engineer robotics. “We’re in the midst of that change right now, and new jobs are going to be created.”

We’ve been conditioned for robots for 50 years, Ritson insisted, pointing to the Jetsons cartoons that many of us grew up with, along with a range of other futuristic ideas that are now a reality. “The future will be humans working with robots,” she said. “We see it happening all the time.”

What Ritson provided at the conference was a whirlwind tour of the highlights happening in robotics today and coming down the pike. The full report, she said, goes into much greater detail, with examples of implementation, where they see the market growing, and more.

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