Did you know that most repetitive tasks in factories can be automated—reduces worker fatigue, health hazards, and improves productivity?
Target audience: Decision makers (CXOs/Directors) of manufacturing & allied firms, management consultants, business strategists, innovators, and curious people.
Reading time: 5-10 min.
Robot is derived from the word “robota”, which literally translates to “hard work” or “forced labour” in many Slavic languages including Czech. An industrial robot is a combination of multiple electro-mechanical components that synergistically work to assist humans in many ways. Today, industrial robots use sensors extensively, and work on principles based on mathematical models. That is, the exact parameters in three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate axes (X, Y, Z) are required to begin tasks (lift & place parts, transport parts, etc.).
In general, six major types of robots are used in factories—Articulated, Cartesian, SCARA, Delta, Polar, and Cylindrical. Designers choose a robot type is based on important decision factors (load, orientation, speed, travel, precision, environment, and duty cycle).
In 1954, George Charles Devol patented the first prototype of a programmable robot (punched paper tapes) that could stack wooden blocks. His firm Unimation (founded in 1956) developed the first robot used by General Motors in the automotive sector in 1961-62.
In the 1960’s, Japan’s economic growth surpassed West Germany’s, their automobile firms and other factories faced major labour shortages. Kawasaki, in partnership with Unimation launched the first Japanese industrial robot ‘Kawasaki-Unimate 2000’ in 1969.
In the 1970s and 1980’s, rapid development of robotic technologies took place across the world including USA, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland. For example, the use of microprocessors, advanced sensors, and machine vision systems. These developments helped robots perform complex & repetitive tasks—precision manufacturing and hazardous situations.
Current & Future Trends:
As per Mordor Intelligence, the industrial robotics market was valued at US $24.35 billion in 2020. This value is expected to be about US $52.85 billion in 2026, with a CAGR of 14.11% over this forecast period (2021-2026). The fastest growing market and largest market is the Asia Pacific region, led by China. The key drivers of growth are rise of e-commerce, electronics, and the automotive industry.
- ‘Time’ is a critical element in automobile manufacturing (assembly line processes), tasks involve—movement of heavy parts, and different types of welding. Robots can reduce workplace accidents and contribute to achieve on-time deliveries.
- ‘Cleanliness and Quality’ are of utmost importance in electronics manufacturing (cleanrooms). The time involved to build microchips can vary from a few weeks up to a few months—depends on the complexity of the integrated circuits. Robots can help these firms achieve very high production efficiencies (Six Sigma/3.4 PPM).
Some of the most popular applications for industrial robots are:
- Welding (Arc & Spot)
- Materials Handling
- Machine Tending
- Picking, Packing and Palletizing
- Mechanical Cutting, Grinding, Deburring and Polishing
- Other Processes (Inspection, Waterjet Cutting, Soldering, etc.)
The next generation of robots (Industry 4.0) incorporates autonomous robots (factory transportation, drone deliveries, autonomous vehicles) and collaborative robots (operator assistance). These advanced robots also feature a stream of technological advancements—Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud computing, AI and machine learning, Edge computing, Cybersecurity, Digital twin, etc.
For general manufacturing in the developing world, if skilled labour is easily available, use of robots could be restricted. This decision is based on multiple factors—lifetime costs of a robot versus skilled/semi-skilled labour, local employment policies, factory size, product type, etc.
The major challenge for today’s manufacturers—high initial costs for advanced robots, which can perform complex and repetitive tasks. These technologically advanced robots can assist or replace operators and repay their costs soon. For instance, in a high-volume factory (two/three shifts per day), robots could pay their costs within a few years. Such investments would help firms reduce operating costs, drive efficiencies, and reduce failure rate of their products. This probably explains the consistent growth of industrial robots used by firms globally.
Potential Risks and Threats:
One major threat from robots with artificial intelligence (AI) could be to outsmart humans or cause serious harm to humans. This risk is inevitable with any advanced technology in the world. The chances of such an occurrence can be minimised through enhanced safety features (multiple) built in these machines.
Another major risk could be—increase in unemployment and rise of inequality due to the use of robots. Most robots tend to be highly productive and require a few hours of periodic maintenance (weekly). This cannot be compared easily to the skills, performance, creativity, and productivity of humans (technicians, operators). Factory owners and policy makers should make ethical decisions about worker employment.
The future factories would incorporate robots for many complex tasks, especially in developed countries with limited labour force and/or high costs of labour. The COVID-19 pandemic and global supply chain mishaps have created a sense of urgency to re-shore manufacturing, and to strengthen regional supply chains.
In the developing world, the cost-benefit ratio plays an important role in the adoption of industrial robots. The type of products manufactured, product costs, production volume, and local employment policies also impact these decisions.