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The robots are coming!

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

It may be time to start seriously considering applying robots to improve manufacturing. As with many technologies, it has taken time for robots to be refined and cost-reduced before being broadly adopted in manufacturing. George Devol applied for the first robotics patents in 1954 (granted in 1961). The first company to produce a robot was Unimation, founded by Devol and Joseph F. Engelberger in 1956 and based on Devol's original patents. Unimation later licensed their technology to Kawasaki Heavy Industries and GKN, manufacturing Unimates in Japan and England, respectively. For some time, Unimation's only competitor was Cincinnati Milacron, Inc., of Ohio. This changed radically in the late 1970s, when several big Japanese conglomerates began producing similar industrial robots. Today there are many robot manufacturers providing a range of robots from manufacturing very small electronics to large robots that can pick up more than one ton. Robots have improved dramatically, they are easier to program, and costs have come down.

The use of robots is increasing worldwide, according to the latest International Federation of Robotics industry study (www.IFR.org). The adoption rate of robots, measured in number of robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing between 2008 and 2011, is on the rise in Brazil (40 percent), China (210 percent), Germany (11 percent), The Republic of Korea (57 percent), and the U.S. (41 percent). The study describes how the adoption of robots is a relatively new development in Chinese manufacturing. Korea has the most robots, with 347 per 10,000 manufacturing employees, followed by Japan (339), Germany (261), the U.S. (135), and China (21). Germany, which has proportionately many more robots than the U.S., has achieved higher economic growth with almost no reduction in manufacturing employment.

In January, at the Automate show in Chicago, I saw a wider range of robots on display. The most common robots are single-arm, fixed-in-place units that are widely used in the automotive industry. Lighter, smaller versions of these robots are available and can be mounted on walls and ceilings, providing more flexibility. Overhead mounted parallel robots are used in many "pick and place" and light packaging applications. A new breed of robots demonstrated at the show have two arms and can be fixed in place or mounted on a rolling stand for flexibility so they can be moved to multiple work cells to meet production needs similar to moving employees.

Robots have primarily been used in automotive plants, but this is changing as other industries adopt them. For example, food-grade robots that meet U.S.D.A standards have been introduced, making robots practical in these applications. Robots can be applied in new projects and in existing manufacturing plants. Robots provide an advantage for improving existing plant efficiencies since they can easily be added to improve operations without redesign of machines and production lines. Robots can perform repetitive manufacturing functions with accuracy and precision every time. Robots can also be used in place of humans in areas where there are safety and health hazards. Since robots can be programmed to do multiple tasks, they are good for achieving flexible manufacturing requirements. Robots are not just for large manufacturing companies; I have had discussions with owners of companies with fewer than 150 employees that are using robots to improve productivity and be competitive.

Now is a good time to think about how robots may be used to improve production in your plant operations.