At one time, robotics was considered more science fiction than reality. That's changing. Today, robots are increasingly playing a role in our everyday lives. They're zooming around our homes to pick up dust, helping surgeons perform operations with even more precision, sniffing out suspicious packages for law enforcement, and on the factory floor, they're performing all kinds of tasks for automotive, electronics, and industrial manufacturing companies.

Traditional industrial robots, logistical robots, and collaborative robots all have their jobs to do — just as robot developers and design engineers do. They require solutions that enable accurate, safe, cost-effective operations. With the drive toward Industry 4.0, the use of robotic, automation, and control systems on the factory floor has become commonplace as they allow manufacturers to increase efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

Industry 4.0, or the smart factory, has been defined as the mixing of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices with the technological world. Regardless of its name, it is creating a complete revolution in factories and manufacturing. According to an article in Forbes magazine, “there are four key trends in the digital transformation” that manufacturers should be paying close attention to:

  1. Connected consumers, customized experiences — combining the efficiencies of mass customization with a truly unique product.

  2. Connected employees — empowered by the information they need most.

  3. Optimized production — leveraging insights from real-time data.

  4. Transformed products — manufacturing floor machinery that can predict failure and maintenance needs, all thanks to more analytics and data.

These four trends all touch on one key foundational technology: sensing. As the need for industrial robotic automation advances, sensing technology will continue to be the foundation for data collection that will help transform manufacturing floors into the connected, cost-effective, and reliable factories of the future. The greater flexibility and precision that robotic systems demand requires more flexibility and even more reliable connectivity solutions. From automotive and aircraft construction, to the pharmaceutical industry, to logistics and metal processing, the latest generation of industrial robots can handle even more complex tasks.

The Challenge: Accuracy and Precision

As the robotics revolution takes hold, most manufacturers are finding that they need to build accurate and precise sensing elements into robotic equipment to help them handle the challenges of the factory floor.

As an example, for collaborative applications, sensing systems must not only detect if a human is around but also prevent any possible collision between the robot and nearby workers. Sophisticated sensor technologies are a core requirement, yet meeting these design requirements is not easy.

Most environments require variable sensing ranges and resolutions, and factory floor environments can be dirty, harsh, and unforgiving — making it difficult to differentiate between humans and other robots working in the same environment.

The Challenge: Personnel Safety for Robotic Equipment

Safety ranks as the top priority for robotic automation developers. Because industrial robots can introduce many new safety hazards into the workplace, the “do no harm” approach has become even more important since these robots are increasingly used for heavy lifting on automotive assembly lines and other industrial manufacturing venues. There are strict regulations as well as stiff penalties surrounding robotic safety. Manufacturers must prepare for this before the robots are installed to ensure compliance and create a safe environment for workers.

Training for manufacturing staff is also required to ensure employee safety. When robotic equipment is implemented, a new level of expertise is required from workers. Many will have to be trained on how to operate this new equipment, while other employees will have to be hired who have the proper certifications, education, and robotic experience.

The Challenge: Moving to an IoT-Enabled Digital Infrastructure

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) presents enormous productivity potential for manufacturers but the true benefits can be difficult to realize. Industrial robotics inherently promote connectivity and are proving to be a great starting point for broader IIoT initiatives — and are increasingly being integrated from the ground up. Companies are beginning to recognize the importance of sensors and how they are changing the approach for IIoT applications, particularly as companies see the benefits of merging traditional operational areas and information technology.

Many believe IIoT has the potential to drive greater efficiency and improve productivity. In fact, industry analysts believe that the combination of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and contextually rich, real-time data streams delivered by IIoT sensors and networks is going to make IIoT business cases far more compelling.

As the IIoT smart factory experience evolves, it will run on data. Some of the world's largest manufacturers have already begun to integrate industrial robots with IIoT in manufacturing sites around the world, increasing productivity and decreasing unscheduled downtime via predictive maintenance sensing technologies — saving time and money. Some large automotive manufacturers are using thousands of connected robots in their factories to collect real-time data on robotic performance. The connected sensor technology enables them to see when a robot needs maintenance and proactively address performance issues before the entire assembly line shuts down. In the future, they will be able to monitor and adjust robotic accuracy and repeatability in real time to improve product quality. The automotive industry is not the only early adopters of this approach since connected robotic technology can be valuable in other industrial applications such as industrial printing and packaging and in the medical field, food service, and law enforcement.

In general, we are in the early stages of connected robot technology but the desire for greater connectivity exists. As this technology evolves, these systems will transform into more of an in-process adaptive tool that allows the robots to monitor and automatically adjust their own performance for maximum productivity. For many facilities, it simply comes down to making the investment at the right time; for example, commercialization of more higher-performance sensors is enabling IIoT to a greater degree.

Sensors that traditionally cost thousands of dollars are now more affordable and more compact to enable a smarter factory. The investment is becoming less burdensome up front with advances in sensor technology, digital compensation and signal conditioning, and wireless signal transmission. And while most see the productivity promise, technical and network employees still see it as a risk from a network security perspective. Smaller proof-of-concepts (POCs) can be critical to give companies a better opportunity to calculate the associated cost-saving benefits and ROI driven by greater efficiency and productivity.

Conclusion

As the robotics solutions for the IIoT market continue to evolve, precise, real-time measurements of pressure, humidity, force, vibration, temperature, position, and more will increase efficiency, productivity, and product quality on the factory floor.

This article was contributed by TE Connectivity, Berwyn, PA. For more information, visit here .

Motion Design Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2019 issue of Motion Design Magazine.

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