The manufacturing facilities of the future will deploy extremely easy-to-use, safe, flexible, and affordable automation supported by AI and standardized software and hardware interfaces. In several key respects, the transformative technologies required to make all this happen are already here, driven by demand from within the manufacturing sector itself. These technologies provide a tantalizing glimpse into the future of manufacturing automation.

The Manufacturing Perspective

The manufacturing sector is facing a skilled and unskilled labor crisis that is set to continue long into the future. The manufacturing skills gap in the United States alone could see as many as 2.1 million jobs remaining unfilled by 2030 at a cost of USD 1 trillion to the national economy, according to a recent study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

It’s a pattern that is repeated worldwide and it’s driving growth in automation adoption. A separate 2021 Deloitte Global Resilience Report found that 57% of manufacturing respondents have already used advanced technologies to redesign job tasks including automating previously manual tasks.

At the same time, manufacturers are facing growing demand for their products, driven by a booming e-commerce sector. And on top of all this, customers’ demands are changing. There is a notable trend towards ever greater customization of the final product, which drives demand for flexible automation that is quick and easy to reprogram and redeploy. The related trend towards high-mix/low-volume production is already here and is also set to grow into the future.

Manufacturers will need more automation in the future. That’s a given. But as we shall see, they will increasingly need automation with specific characteristics; namely, automation that is high on usability, safe, flexible, standardized, and affordable.

Back to the Future

Safe, flexible automation that’s affordable and easy to program is already here, as shown above. The cobot, fitted with a ready-out-of-the-box electric gripper places metal parts in a laser marker before placing them on a conveyor for a human worker to pick up and package. (Credit: OnRobot)

Twenty years ago, traditional industrial automation was the only game in town and only large companies were invited to play due to the cost and complexity involved. Traditional industrial automation is best suited to low-mix/high-volume production, requires expensive experts to program, and carries a large footprint. It also requires extensive safety guarding and fencing to protect human workers.

Traditional industrial automation remains the largest segment of the global industrial robotics market. But the fastest-growing segment of the industrial robot market is collaborative robots (or cobots) and here we get important clues regarding the direction manufacturing automation is headed.

Characterized by ease of use, low capital investment, small footprint, flexibility, and safe operability around humans, the emergence of cobots and lightweight industrial robots over the past 15 years enables small- to medium-sized companies (SMEs) to benefit from automation for the first time. It has also shown automation companies of all types the importance of providing their customers with solutions that are high on safety, usability, and flexibility.

Before we dive into the key features of future manufacturing automation — asking the question, “How close to the future is current technology?” along the way — note that cobots are not the solution to every manufacturing automation problem, especially when extremely high speeds and heavy payloads are required. And although growing fast in popularity, cobots remain a niche segment of the industrial automation market.

Nevertheless, in terms of breaking down barriers around affordability, usability, safety, and flexibility, the transformative effect of cobots is being felt across all types of robots and is shaping the future automation landscape.

Safety

Current technologies such as light curtains and proximity sensors allow manufacturers to make almost any type of automated cell safe to use around humans (subject to risk assessments). This means that safety is no longer the sole preserve of collaborative robots since it incorporates safe deployments of traditional industrial robot cells, too. When it comes to safe operation, the future is already here.

Usability

Usability is an essential feature of successful manufacturing automation. Here, an end user hand-guides a cobot and gripper through various waypoints as part of an intuitive programming process that breaks down the barriers to automation deployments, particularly for SMEs. (Credit: OnRobot)

Market analysts and experts are predicting a boom in robot applications but for that to happen, we have to minimize deployment time on each application by making automation easier to deploy.

On the software side, this means software with intuitive interfaces that can be deployed by operators with minimal training, saving time and money on programming and engineering. On the hardware side, this means plug-and-play features and easy interoperability between different types of robots and robot components. It also means click-on/click-off end-effectors and the demise of tooling that is fixed in place using 60 small screws.

All manufacturers of automation products are thinking about these things but there is a lot of variation among the offerings available. For example, it is already possible to find easy-to-use, ready out-of-the-box automation components that can be deployed on a wide range of different types of industrial robot. But this type of “one-stop shop” offering is the exception rather than the rule.

In the future, these features will be the rule for all automation offerings. And one of the key catalysts for that change will be growing standardization on both the hardware and software side.

The plug-and-play, all-electric dual gripper for material handling applications shown here is the type of easy-to-use end-effector that’s set to become the norm in tomorrow’s manufacturing facilities. (Credit: OnRobot)

Standardization

Why should integrators spend time on reinventing the wheel with customized solutions when they can buy standardized products? Standardized automation provides widespread interoperability between components, is cheaper than designing systems from scratch, and frees integrators to focus on deploying robots and getting applications running.

Today, more and more integrators are doing package deals with standardized products. This means cost savings for manufacturing customers on installation and maintenance. As standardization spreads, it will also mean that an integrator who could install five projects today will soon be able to install 50. The integrator will charge less per installation, driving the cost down and making automation accessible for cash-strapped SMEs, while also enabling integrators to make more money than was previously possible.

Standardized products are available today and there are efforts underway to develop robotics software and hardware standards but the industry has some way to go to achieve anything like universal standardization.

Flexibility: The Changing Role of the Integrator

Flexibility is many things, but in essence, it’s a set of tools to make sure that your production is lean, agile, and able to redeploy and change quickly.

The future of manufacturing automation means flexible automation designed to meet the customization demands of the manufacturing company customers. It also means flexible, easily customizable production setups and automation that is easy to program and easy to (re)deploy, minimizing downtime and reducing costs during production process changeovers.

Giving manufacturers the ability to control deployments themselves, including most of the maintenance and programming, is empowering for the end-user. And the automation is moving fast in this direction. As end-users become more empowered by increasing usability, the role of integrators will change, too. Integrators will be able to focus more and more on deploying automation, rather than designing and programming applications.

Difficult-to-program, mostly single-purpose, traditional industrial robots remain the largest segment of today’s industrial robotics market. So, despite some exceptions — found particularly in the fast-growing cobot and lightweight industrial robot segments — the industry has some way to go when it comes to providing the flexibility manufacturers require.

In the future, however, as more companies embrace flexibility in their robot and robot component designs, manufacturers will be able to (re)deploy automation quickly and easily as a matter of course.

Growing Intelligence

Expect to see more artificial intelligence (AI) features incorporated into the entire production line including within every robot and end-effector. AI is a crucial enabler of the data collection and analysis processes that support Industry 4.0.

AI can already be used to provide remote monitoring capabilities by providing transparency into issues that arise when, for any reason, your robot doesn’t work or fails to work at the level of efficiency required for your application. In the future, this transparency will be a standard component of every installation. Expect AI-supported remote monitoring applications, for example, to become standard within the next few years, along with massive growth in AI-enabled remote maintenance and vision-based inspection applications.

Eventually, programming will be performed by AI platforms built on top of a universal software interface used in all robots.

Automation-as-a-Service

The gripper shown here working on a pick-and-place task can easily be removed, fitted to another brand of robot, and deployed on a very different application. Similarly, the cobot shown is compatible with a wide range of grippers and other end-effectors. This type of interoperability and flexibility will be commonplace in the future. (Credit: OnRobot)

As the “As-a-Service” business model develops, building on the Robots-as-a-Service and Fixtures-as-a-Service offerings we see today, we can look forward to being able to use simple, Uber-like smartphone applications to order the technologies required to automate specific parts of the production process. The ability to pay for automation at a per-part produced rate, for example, eliminates upfront capital investment, allows for more effective cost management, and removes another barrier to automation adoption. Expect to see a massive rise in As-a-Service offerings in the years ahead — a trend that will further empower SMEs to embrace automation solutions.

Is the future of automation in the manufacturing sector already here? Yes and no. We catch a glimpse of it in the emergence of cobots, lightweight industrial robot arms, and in some end-effector and end-of-arm-tooling offerings. In other respects, considerable effort will be required on the part of the automation sector to turn the promise of future automation into reality, particularly in relation to standardization efforts. One thing is certain: the synergy between the manufacturing and automation sectors will intensify, driving technology advancements from the latter and improved productivity and increased profits for the former.

This article was written by Kristian Hulgard, General Manager, Americas Division at OnRobot, Irving, TX. For more information, visit here .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from the archives here.