9 October 2008

Pinto's Point

Industrial robotics snapshot

By Jim Pinto

The market for Industrial Robotics keeps chugging along with anticipated growth of 8% annually to $5 billion a year over the next few years. The long-awaited burgeoning growth still eludes this market because the current generation of robotics still yields only incremental improvements in the manufacturing processes.

The rise of robotics in the manufacturing industry-and increasingly, the service industry-continues to create the greatest value where it can perform tasks that might typically be done by humans or that require something close to human intelligence to complete. The key is in identifying the right tasks and the right balance of robot and human interaction.

To remain competitive in the global arena, future manufacturing scenarios throughout all industrial branches will have to combine highest productivity and flexibility with minimal lifecycle cost of manufacturing equipment. This is particularly valid for today's small- and medium-sized production facilities, which are particularly prone to relocation due to high labor costs.

So far, robot automation technologies have come together specifically for capital-intensive large-volume manufacturing, resulting in relatively costly and complex systems, which often cannot be put to use in small- and medium-sized manufacturing. Furthermore new branches of robot automation such as food, logistics, recycling, etc., require radical new designs of robot systems.

Robots exhibit varying degrees of autonomy. Some robots will faithfully carry out specific actions over and over again (repetitive actions) without variation and with a high degree of repeatability. These actions are programmed routines that specify the direction, acceleration, velocity, deceleration, and distance of a series of coordinated motions. Other robots are much more flexible as to the orientation of the object on which they are operating or even the task that has to be performed on the object itself, which the robot may need to identify.

Industrial robots have three aspects-Bone (linkages) and brawn (motive power) and brain (intelligence). While technology advances continue steadily to improve the first two (improved materials, powerful, light-weight motors), the third aspect continues to yield revolutionary performance. For example, for more precise guidance, robots often contain machine vision sub-systems acting as their "eyes." Improved sensing and artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly important factors from which new growth inflection points continue to emerge.

Future robot systems cannot be a mere extrapolation of today's technology but rather follow new design principles required in a wide range of new application areas. At the same time, novel technologies will have an increasing impact on the design, performance, and cost of future industrial robot automation. Manufacturing competence will be further concentrated on robot systems, which will become key components in the digital factory of the future.

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Behind the byline

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and founder of Action Instruments. You can e-mail him at jim@jimpinto.com or view his writings at www.JimPinto.com. Read the Table of Contents of his book, Pinto's Points, at www.jimpinto.com/writings/points.html.