PHOTO ©PRODUCTION PERIG | ADOBE STOCK

Robot technologies have been the core of production lines since the first 6-axis models were introduced to automotive manufacturing in the 1960s. Now many manufacturers are investing in robots to accelerate their transformation to Industry 4.0

So, how is the robotics industry reacting to today’s changing manufacturing environment?

Industry experts at TM Robotics uncovered insights from global distributors of robotic equipment to explore how manufacturers are preparing for this change, what challenges they face, and how they are adapting to meet customer expectations.

Perceptions of Industry 4.0

According to Hennick’s Annual Manufacturing Report 2018, most manufacturers are either undertaking or considering a move to Industry 4.0. to optimize productivity, and leverage technology to improve manufacturing. Yet, negative views have caused uncertainty, focusing on the threat that automation poses to the roles of human workers.

Among a pool of global automation distributors, 55.17% believed the term Industry 4.0 directly influences how customers choose robotics for their facilities.

Customers are most worried about or would like to learn more about:

  • Smart factory implementation (51.7%)
  • Collaborative robots (cobots) (27.6%)
  • IT and OT convergence (13.7%)
  • Big Data (6.9%)

Manufacturers have been slow to replace old equipment, which can cause problems when implementing new technology alongside it. Industry 4.0 is based on interconnectivity, and legacy systems that require manual monitoring cannot tap into the Internet of Things (IoT).

More than half of distributors in the study believe smart factory implementation is the biggest concern for users.

However, smart factory implementation does not always require an entire systems overhaul. Outdated equipment can be a barrier, but is not a total roadblock.

Rise of cobots

Some cobots can be taught by a technician moving the robot arm, providing instruction without any coding. Still, a major lack of understanding remains among manufacturers.

According to the study, performance (34.5%) is the primary concern when investing in cobots. Some believe that the cobot hype may be a novelty and that these machines will not provide a real benefit until performance improves.

Other concerns that customers have about cobots include:

  • Performance (34.5%)
  • Safety (27.6%)
  • Integration into legacy (20.7%)
  • Programming (10.3%)

Also, 79.3% of distributors don’t believe their customers understand safety requirements. Another 10.3% are unsure of customers’ level of safety knowledge.

Cobot safety can only be determined by a thorough risk assessment, where findings may indicate additional safety features, which may lower operating speeds or add multiple stops. Necessary safety features add significant integration costs, impacting return on investment (ROI).

Doubt about the safety and performance of cobots may explain the lack of change to the wider industrial robot market.

Despite the uncertainty cobot popularity continues to grow. If the application doesn’t require safety guarding, then the initial investment is low and the potential for human-machine collaboration offers efficiency benefits.

However, as applications evolve, multiple cobots may be required for scalability, and the cost of the additional equipment and human workforce may exceed the cost of an industrial robot, without the speed and benefit of unattended production. Business owners must assess the application and needs carefully before deciding if a cobot is necessary.

Big Data

Vision systems in robots use motion, stereo, or passive imaging to take multiple images so that a robot can collect a shape’s data. Another alternative, 3D laser-displacement, automatically extracts 3D data from a 2D image by illuminating shapes.

Even with these advancements, automation distributors don’t believe that all robot software is advanced enough (58.6%) to fulfill the needs of today’s manufacturers, particularly where Big Data is concerned.

Robot distributors say there is a relatively even split between manufacturers asking about Big Data capabilities in automation (51.7%) and those who have not asked (48.9%).

Among customers, common problems faced with robotics software include:

  • Difficult to understand (44.8%)
  • Incompatible with other systems (37.9%)
  • Outdated (13.8%)
  • Too slow (3.5%)

Results show existing robot software is not fulfilling needs. However, 58.6% of robot distributors highlighted free software as one of the five most useful features of the Toshiba Machine robot lineup. This stood alongside repeatability cost (79.3%), speed (41.4%), free training (37.9%), and repeatability (48.3%).

Cybersecurity

Greater connectivity is transforming manufacturing facilities as more devices connect and communicate with each other, so keeping data safe is becoming challenging.

Cybersecurity should be at the forefront of industry discussions. Despite this, 75.9% of robotic distributors said their customers didn’t ask for advice when upgrading to a smart factory.

Regardless of manufacturers’ seemingly lackluster approach to cybersecurity, with a growing number of interconnected devices on the factory floor, there are increasing entry points through which a cyber attacker could penetrate the system. Hackers could access financial information, HR files, or operational data from the factory. This could include any data that passes through a robot, cobot, and sensors.

Customers specified that when choosing an industrial robot, security protocols weren’t mentioned. The most popular features mentioned were programming (79.31%), integrated vision (55.17%), and ability to collaborate (48.28%).

Robotics as a service (RaaS) describes robotics systems rented monthly or quarterly, including technical support, real-time monitoring, and ongoing upgrades. RaaS is not standard yet, so manufacturers may still be responsible for robot maintenance during the machine’s lifespan – including cybersecurity upgrades.

Preparing for the future

Robot manufacturers must consider end-users’ changing expectations. Simple programming (79.31%) was one of the five most important things customers were seeking in robot control technology.

With more than 1,500 different programming languages worldwide, learning every potential robot programming language is impractical. One of the biggest challenges is that almost every robot manufacturer has its own proprietary robot programming language.

Beginners all-purpose symbolic instruction code (BASIC) and Pascal are the basis of several industrial robot languages.

Simple programming may be a top priority, but users will not compromise on robot ability. A balance is needed. Toshiba Machine’s controllers, for example, are programmed in SCOL, a programming language similar to BASIC, but with more advanced features.

Integrated vision (55.2%) is another priority. Vision systems can vary in ability, but all add flexibility to a robot’s performance. Advanced vision systems can also lessen requirements for an operator, reducing the need to manually input data.

Third-most important feature was the need for collaborative abilities (48.3%). Many improvements are needed for safety and performance, which manufacturers must consider when developing new machinery. Similarly, distributors must ensure that a collaborative machine is suitable for a customer’s application.

Greater connectivity has created masses of data that must be collected, stored, and analyzed. To manage this data, use improved robotics software to ensure robots remain part of the smart factory. Security risks related to connectivity have also necessitated improved management protocols and an urgent need for better education.

Robotics is changing, so the way we deliver robots must change, too.

TM Robotics Ltd