Processing Magazine

Long-awaited robot revolution may still be on way

June 4, 2013

Three current trends in industrial robotics, says Dale Arndt, an engineering manager with Fanuc Robotics Canada, are a) smaller robots, b) larger robots and c) robots that work in close collaboration with humans.

Arndt was speaking on the show floor at PTX Canada, held in mid-May in the fair city of Toronto.

Robots that are about one-third smaller than those heretofore commercially available are coming on-line, says Arndt, coupled to vision systems. These “bots” are capable of doing sorting and assembling tasks better than can humans. What’s interesting here, says Arndt, is that the robot vendors can sell these small units without having much idea of how they’ll be used.

As robots get smaller and cheaper, resulting economies of scale will uncover many innovative applications for them. As more and more rote work tasks become automated, labor costs will be less influential in affecting decisions as to where manufacturing or process plants are located.

Arndt cites a special section that appeared in The Economist in April 2012 on the “third industrial revolution,” which will, the editors there say, “allow things to be made economically in smaller numbers, more flexibly and with much lower input of labor, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available on-line.”

Arndt notes that while North American manufacturing output remains steady, the corresponding labor content is decreasing at a rate of about 2.5% per year.

The PTX Canada show floor was rife with robots on display swinging their arms at top speed as they did tricks like sorting through the tile parts conveyed past them to spell out a brand name. But truly impressive was video seen on the show floor of large robots brandishing saws to cut through beef carcasses.

It’s no secret that assembly-line beef, pork and poultry butchering remains highly fraught for workers, despite all the progress made since Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, gave everyone a look at practices in the American meatpacking industry in the early 20th century.

Most dazzling was to see a robot wield the big saw with something of a flourish, as it pulled back to come at the next carcass on the line at an angle that allowed it a clean swipe, like a knife through butter. In handling food products, robots accomplish highly variable tasks related to non-standard parts, e.g., trimming lettuce and preparing seedlings.

The third robotic trend is collaborative operation, with a robot sharing space with a human such that a person performs the “tactile” tasks while the robot renders everything rote. Standards are being developed to govern these type situations.

Arndt says we in North America have a huge opportunity before us to better use all the capabilities we have to hand. Currently it’s estimated that there is one robot for every 30 workers in Japan. The ratio in Europe is estimated at 50:1 and in North America 80:1.

Further conversations on the PTX Canada show floor made it clear that sensor technology advances are a big part of robotics innovation. But that is a subject for another day.