Attending the recent Automate show in Chicago was an extraordinary experience that allowed me and more than 20,000 other attendees an opportunity to peer into the future of industrial robotics. Being part of a company that is at the forefront of the industrial robotics and manufacturing automation industries still provides only one perspective, and Automate brought together leaders from all corners of the industry, such as Fanuc, ABB, Kuka, Keyence and Cognex, to showcase advances and share insights. The range of technologies on display that were designed to enhance processes, improve product quality and lower manufacturing costs was astonishing. I walked away from the show with a deeper sense of awareness of two notions: The rise of robots is upon us, and machine vision provides robots with the artificial intelligence that will forge the future of robotics in our increasingly globalized society.
The rise of robots
As many in automation are aware, robots are becoming an increasingly popular answer to completing dangerous or repetitive tasks: grinding, deburring, bin-picking, part inspections, etc. Several manufacturers and integrators assembled elaborate booths displaying various robotic capabilities, many currently in use and others as possible future applications. This alone is indicative of the rise of robots, but it is only the beginning. The leading robot manufacturers all appear to be focused on making robots simpler to program/configure and easier to integrate with technologies that create incredible functionality. The result: collaborative robots.
The show floor featured a number of collaborative robots performing a wide variety of tasks from part handling to packaging; some even bagged candy to hand out or served ice cream in a cone. Using various sensing technologies, the applications for collaborative robots to work with human counterparts are infinite. Long gone seem to be the days of robots in hard guarding and being tucked away in the corner, wrapped in ominous metal fencing. Today’s robots are becoming more flexible in their range of applications, with friendlier interfaces, and free to be placed anywhere on the manufacturing floor.
Forging the future
After seeing the surprising versatility of machine vision applications on display at Automate, it became clear that machine vision is the technological advancement that will launch industrial robotics into the future. When combined with the interconnectivity of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and other smart tools such as mobile analytics, machines equipped with technologies like 3D embedded vision, multispectral and hyperspectral imaging, and deep learning will possess a primitive form of artificial intelligence that allows greater flexibility in application and the ability to actively learn processes without programming.
For example, Cognex and Keyence both have solutions that can compare eight to 10 different part characteristics in a fraction of a second. These are designed to be mounted on the end of a robot so you have a complete solution that is capable of part picking and inspection. Both of these are tasks that are often hard to fill and results can vary widely as operators tire throughout long shifts.
In another instance, Fanuc is working on developing the ability to configure a robot through learning instead of programming—specifically the capability to give a robot a task, like picking objects out of a bin and putting them into another container. In this scenario, once the robot is configured, it will spend some amount of time figuring out how to complete the task via trial and error, and within a short time the robot will have mastered the task as well as if it had been programmed by an engineer. It seems apparent that as we continue to combine advancing vision technologies with low-cost power processing abilities, the future is endless as to what can be accomplished.
Although the next Automate isn’t until April 2019, I highly recommend that you get this event on your calendar early and plan to attend. The Automate show attracts more than 20,000 visitors, all looking for new ways to enhance their manufacturing processes, lower production costs, and increase their competitive edge.
Michael Lindley is vice president of business development and marketing at Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.