Industry 4.0 Series: Preparing for the Rise of Collaborative Robots

May 26, 2017 by Sam SauerSam Sauer

This story is part of our Industry 4.0 series, which looks at the new technologies, techniques, and trends that are pushing manufacturers toward a new level of optimization and productivity.

There’s a new wave of robots on the horizon. They’re smarter, safer, and cheaper than earlier models. And, they’re going to have a major impact on manufacturing for years to come.

That may be why manufacturing experts consider robotics to be the greatest potential disruptor over the next five years, according to a new study from the University of Kentucky’s Global Supply Chain Institute.

“Robotics have been around for more than 50 years, but they have become dramatically more dynamic in the last five,” says Paul Dittmann, executive director of the Global Supply Chain Institute and author of the paper. “It used to be that robots were in a cage and were dangerous. They had very limited applications and weren’t programmable. Now we have robots that work alongside a human. They’re so easy to program that people can literally move their arm and program the robot, as opposed to complex code.”

Stäubli is one of the companies producing these collaborative robots. The Swiss-based company unveiled its new TX2 line at the Automate trade show this April.

This focus on safety and collaboration is part of a second phase for robotics, says Paul Deady, automotive segment manager at Stäubli. In the first phase, robots took over jobs that were too “dangerous, dirty, or mundane for people to do. We put robots in those application spaces. We took people out,” he says. The second phase is focused on “robots that are purpose-built—designed and engineered to be safe to work alongside people.”

An engineer operating the Stäubli TX2 60 at the Automate trade show.

The TX2 models use compact laser scanners to detect the presence of humans. When a technician approaches, the robot reduces its speed. If the technician gets too close, the robot stops until he or she has moved to a safe distance. These models also have a “sensory skin” that immediately stops operations when touched.

One downside of these collaborative robots is that production and speed are sacrificed with frequent slowing and stopping. Dittmann believes that this will change as technology develops.

While safety has been increasing, prices have been going down. The cost of purchasing and operating a robotic spot welder, for example, went from $182,000 in 2005 to $133,000 in 2014, and will drop to $103,000 by 2025, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group. At the same time, robotics performance will improve by around 5 percent each year.

Lowered costs, lessened barriers to entry, and improved performance of robotics will be a catalyst for increased adoption. Boston Consulting Group predicts that the share of tasks that are performed by robots will rise from a global average of around 10 percent across all manufacturing industries today to around 25 percent by 2025.

At Stäubli, Deady has seen robotics expanding from the traditional automotive space. “We’re seeing a lot of creativity and capital flow into the robotics space,” he says. “It’s a growing market.”

There’s more new technology out there than ever before, Dittmann says. “It’s almost like a tsunami coming at people. Those who ignore it could be in serious trouble,” he adds. But he’s quick to point out that staying current doesn’t mean chasing every new technology. There needs to be analysis and solid ROI.

[ Further Reading: How Project Teams Can Prepare for Industry 4.0 ]

Manufacturers interested in robotics should follow a disciplined and methodical approach. When Deady works with Stäubli customers that are new to robotics at, he recommends the following actions:

“If a manufacturer hasn’t embraced robotics before, the first thing I encourage them to do is to document their existing processes,” he says. Document what you do and how you do it, as well as any process variations.

Manufacturers should also take the time to measure process cycle times, error rates, and other key metrics that can establish a baseline. “By documenting your existing processes, you can understand the sequence of operations,” he adds.

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