Here are six emerging trends in the world of industrial robots that will likely have a big impact on a wide variety of industrial sectors, and provide benefits well beyond what was once imaginable.

Top Six Trends in Industrial Robotics

Nick Chambers | ABB Robotics


Here are six emerging trends in the world of industrial robots that will likely have a big impact on a wide variety of industrial sectors, and provide benefits well beyond what was once imaginable.


Increasing ease of use, deployment and maintenance

The automotive industry has had a long history of using robots, but for industries that are relatively new to automation, programming robots can be a challenge. We need to find ways to make robots easier to use so that they do not require such a highly skilled workforce to deploy, operate and maintain. In fact, this question is one of the largest technical challenges the industry is currently grappling with.  

As more and more companies find that robots are within their affordability range, it is clear that one of the final barriers to adoption is the perceived complexity of programming and designing robotic systems. At ABB we feel very strongly that a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) programming interface is one of the main ways to overcome this barrier.

Our PC-based RobotStudio offline programming solution has been around for many years now and continues to make the design and commissioning phase much simpler than in the past. When combined with an increasing number of standardized “off-the-shelf” products for the most popular robotic applications—something we call Function Packages, such as our recently released Flex MT® for machine tending— offline programming can be harnessed for maximum efficiency and provide the fastest time to start of production. RobotStudio is unique in the industry in its ability to truly provide WYSIWYG programming with near perfect accuracy when taking what you’ve created in the virtual world and installing it in the real world.

I also think we will increasingly see robots that can “program themselves.” At present, we mostly have robots that need to be trained and programmed in a unique way for each installation. We will see sensor technologies, such as vision and force-sensing, playing a bigger role in helping robots do this. We will also see robots continue to evolve to meet the needs of non-automotive industries. As new applications of robots emerge in new industry segments, features such as accuracy, stiffness, weight, speed and cost will evolve alongside them—some increasing in importance and some decreasing in importance based on the industry.


Human-Robot Collaboration

At ABB we believe that close collaboration between humans and robots, working as colleagues on assembly lines and in other applications, will be a large part of the future of industrial robotics. In fact, there may come a time when the line between what is made by a human and what is made by a robot is blurred to the point of becoming indistinct. This will be especially pronounced during a transition phase in which robots are still incapable of perfectly reproducing human dexterity, but have enough dexterity and ability to work with delicate objects that they can take over some but not all of the jobs that currently require a human touch. The growing need for small parts assembly is a perfect example, with the electronics market leading the charge in this regard.

The industry, working in conjunction with lawmakers, regulators and the insurance industry around the planet, will need to agree on ways to mitigate the inherent risks of human interaction with robots. Specifically, strengthened and new global standards governing this interaction, as well as creative ways of mitigating risk, will be needed.

ABB has recently announced YuMi® - our dual arm collaborative robot slated for market introduction in April 2015 - which is designed to work on small parts assembly alongside human co-workers.  YuMi is designed in such a way that it is intrinsically safe, which means it cannot hurt a co-worker. It uses force-sensors to detect changes in the force applied to it; its axes are designed in such a way to eliminate all pinch points; it has speed limited motors; and it relies on ABB’s decades of software experience governing safety. When all these features are combined, when it comes in contact with a human being it has the most minimal risk of doing any kind of harm, and beyond that we have added padding for an additional safety measure.

Use of such collaborative robots will grow significantly in the future, but safety will be vital for collaborative robot operation since the robots will need to work in close contact with humans.

While YuMi is ABB’s signature collaborative robot, we also believe that there is plenty of opportunity for more types of collaborative robots. By combining our advanced safety software with speed limited motors and force-control and padding on the exterior of the robot, the future of human-robot collaboration is just around the corner.


New ways of working with robots

We envision a future in which companies that depend on robots will be able to manage them and the teams that rely on them from any device, anywhere with an Internet connection to simplify all stages of robot interaction (design, sales, installation, commissioning, operation, oversight, and service).

I believe the future of robotics is closely tied to two aspects of connectivity that the entire industry is focusing on. The first relates to the application of connectivity to remotely monitor robots. For instance, the ABB Remote Service solution is being used to monitor robots remotely in real time. The solution helps to proactively identify potential issues so that they do not disrupt normal manufacturing operations as well as help users optimize their processes. For instance, it helps us detect if a robot is in need of service or an upgrade and it can also analyze movements for efficiency. The customer can then choose to have the issue resolved over the phone or by having a technician visit the production plant. This helps us better support our customers in running trouble free manufacturing with no loss of production time.


Improved robot “senses”

A key piece of the technical challenge puzzle involves the tools that allow robots to interact with the world around them, including advanced sensing and advanced gripping. In order to allow robots to do all the jobs that they are well suited for, they will need to develop more “human-like” abilities to find, identify and manipulate objects.

ABB Force Sensor on Robot Wrist

When combined with powerful processing capability, tools like force control and advanced 2D and 3D vision will create a kind of robotic “independence” and allow the robot to make “decisions” about what to do when it encounters the inevitable hiccups that arise in everyday operation. Already ABB has developed a new generation of Integrated Force Control and Integrated Vision to help make these advanced technologies available to more and more end-users.

ABB Integrated Vision

And while robots are certainly capable of very precise and repeatable movements, when it comes to things like small parts assembly all that precision is useless without the ability to handle tiny objects with dexterity. In this regard, end of arm tooling is needed that mimics the human hand as much as possible with its touch, flexibility, care and speed.


Improved ROI

Over the last several decades we have seen robots go from incredibly expensive machines with limited functionality to today’s modern industrial robots that can do amazing things and offer a quick return on investment.

Robots have also reduced injuries in the workplace, increased the competitiveness of companies in a fierce global market, elevated the quality of affordable products, increased profits for countless businesses, and created a whole new ecosystem of high-paying and rewarding jobs.

Based on a huge body of evidence, experience and common sense, it is clear that the companies that adopt robots realize huge financial benefits. More than any other action businesses can take, integrating robots can increase productivity, reduce overhead, provide flexibility, reduce waste, and increase quality—in some cases improving these metrics by orders of magnitude.


Training the robot employees of the future

Industrial robots have created a whole new ecosystem of high-paying and rewarding jobs. Designing, building, marketing, selling, installing, operating and maintaining robots creates jobs that didn’t exist before robots. The jobs this “robot ecosystem” creates are typically high paying, rewarding and come with good levels of benefits.

Robots allow companies to remain cost competitive even while maintaining production in a high cost country as opposed to moving operations to a low cost country. This preserves jobs in the high cost countries that would otherwise be entirely shifted to the low cost countries. This concept, known as reshoring in the industry, helps to balance out employment around the world.

A February 2013 IFR report touches on some of these topics and highlights the fact that from 2000-2008 the robotics industry created 8-10 million new jobs, either directly or indirectly. That’s more than 1 million jobs globally per year. Although the economic recovery stalled job growth on all fronts, the prediction is that between now and 2020 another 4 million jobs will be created in the “robot ecosystem.”

So while it’s true that the old manufacturing jobs are disappearing, it’s also true that the required manufacturing job skills of the future will be more high tech and demand an understanding of automation. In the US, even though there are more jobs available every day, employers are having a hard time finding qualified candidates. In the high tech world (including that of robots), this is often due to the fact that the needed set of job skills is hard to find. Instead of fighting about the fact that some of the worst jobs on the planet are going extinct, let’s celebrate a future with better jobs. There are many robot-related training facilities around the world—ABB Robotics runs many around the world—and when helping our children pick what to study in school, and even what type of school to go to, let’s let them know what the jobs of the future will be so they can make wise decisions.


About ABB Robotics

ABB Robotics is a leading supplier of industrial robots - also providing robot software, peripheral equipment, modular manufacturing cells and service for tasks such as welding, handling, assembly, painting and finishing, picking, packing, palletizing and machine tending. Key markets include automotive, plastics, metal fabrication, foundry, electronics, machine tools, pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries. A strong solutions focus helps manufacturers improve productivity, product quality and worker safety. ABB has installed more than 200,000 robots worldwide.


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow

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