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Will robots be the answer to our next manufacturing revolution?

03 Feb 2014

 In 2012, Apple manufacturer FoxConn announced its intention to replace its human-operated assembly line with one million robots. Could this be paving the way for a manufacturing utopia?

When John Kay invented a fast, easy way to weave cloth in 1733, he helped start a new era for manufacturing. His invention, the flying shuttle, where the shuttle on a loom could be returned to the weaver by jerking on a thread, removed the need for two people to work a loom for wider cloth and enabled productivity to be doubled.

Similarly, James Hargreaves later the same century heralded in new efficiencies with his Spinning Jenny, a contraption that enabled more than one thread to be spun at once.

Of course, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was not the end of the story and in recent years innovation has moved a long way from pulling shuttles with pieces of thread. However, the motivation to improve the manufacturing process has continued and the drivers are still efficiency, speed and accuracy.

Optical options

One way that this is happening is through the use of advanced lasers, which are playing an increasing role in manufacturing processes such as cutting, welding and ablation.

One area where lasers can make a significant difference is in micro drilling. Some industries require a very high level of uniformity and reproducibility in the shape and size of holes drilled, which can be a challenge when mechanical drill components become worn over time. With laser-based drills, no components interact with the material and so the laser, and therefore the size of the holes, remains the same.

Lithuania-based Ekspla, which makes rapid-pulse lasers, observed in a recent press release that "laser micromachining is rapidly becoming the material processing technology of choice for numerous small-scale, real-world applications. New advances in diode-pumped solid-state lasers are enabling material processes once found only in research laboratories to be incorporated into growing numbers of production lines".

Short-pulse lasers, which are available for industrial uses with pulse rates in the order of picoseconds and even femtoseconds, have many benefits over older laser systems because they can be very finely focused and controlled. Because the laser pulses are so short and targeted, there is virtually no heat effect on the material being treated, which means that extremely fine features can be incorporated into products. Such developments are particularly important in the electronics industry, for example, to make thinner mobile phone screens and in the manufacture of photovoltaics.

For other industrial applications, laser manufacturers are also pushing to higher and higher powers. For example, IPG Photonics is reported to have recently delivered a 100kW fibre laser to a Japanese customer, a move that is said to represent the highest-power industrial laser ever built.

Another hot topic is the area of additive manufacture or 3D printing. Developments in this area enable new products to be formed easily so that companies can do rapid prototyping or short product runs with a broad range of materials. Companies including Rolls-Royce, General Electric, Siemens and BMW are all said to be looking at the potential of 3D printing in their manufacturing processes.

The robot workers

A big part of the image of modern manufacturing is the idea of robots. "The use of industrial robots has increased steadily in recent years. For our customers, automation is the decisive key to higher productivity and greater cost-effectiveness. It improves product quality, reduces cost-intensive use of materials and minimises the consumption of dwindling energy resources," says Wolfgang Meisen, head of corporate communications at KUKA Robotics in Germany.

"Automation makes work easier, ensures quality, standardises work processes and protects human workers," he adds. "Customers benefit from high quality and throughput, as robots are never lacking in concentration and can work without breaks. The user benefits from the great flexibility of the robots, which can be quickly adapted to new and modified cell concepts."

Meisen explains that industrial robots in the past were used almost exclusively in the automotive sector and in series production. However, robots have now found many new application areas in areas such as foodstuffs, plastics, metalworking, foundry, electronics, medical technology and the entertainment industry.

UK-based RURobots, which develops robotics products for larger firms, has noticed similar trends. Managing director Geoff Pegman said that the main application areas that the company sees today are in the nuclear, food and healthcare industries. "One of the big things that's changed in the last few years is that many more companies are saying 'we need robotics, how do we do it?' whereas previously we had to convince people of the need for robots," he observes.

He says that the broadening of application areas has brought new challenges for robot manufacturers. "Applications were mainly in large firms with robots doing the same thing day in, day out. Now there is much more take up by smaller companies and this changes the way that robots are used. They need to be more flexible because products often have shorter run times."

This, Pegman says, means that the way robots are programmed has to change so they can be tasked more easily and cost-effectively. He says that some people are working on doing this via graphical user interfaces while others are working with physically moving the robot and showing it what to do.

"We work on a more task-based approach," Pegman says. "We show the robot what we want and the robot decides how to do it." He notes that machine vision plays a crucial role in enabling this approach. "We use vision systems and robots together all the time. Vision systems are essential for flexibility."

He gives the example of using robots in the food industry to assemble ready meals and sandwiches, where a robot might be shown a finished product and then left to determine how to assemble the ingredients to do the same. Here, according to Pegman, there is a need for robots to be used by people who aren't particularly highly skilled so operation needs to be straightforward.

"One of the big advantages of robots is hygiene. You know the level of cleanliness of a robot and it is not difficult to make one that can be cleaned with a pressure hose. You can also do things like take the temperature right down so you can get better shelf life for food and lower factory heating costs."

Remote operation of robots is especially important in the nuclear industry, using a robot where you couldn't or wouldn't put a person, particularly on the decommissioning side. Pegman envisages that robots will be seen more at the end-of-life stage of products, particularly in disassembly, as well as in carrying out maintenance for large-capital projects such as wind farms.

The perks of introducing robots

There are several drivers for customers to opt for robots, Pegman says. First, there is the possibility to increase competitiveness. Then there is the option of reshoring - bringing manufacturing back to the home country rather than doing everything manually in other parts of the world where labour is cheaper. There is also the increased use of flexible robotics to do more individual products with short-run batches.

Accuracy and speed are other key benefits, according to Dirk Schoeffeler, who is responsible for customer support at DENSO in Germany.

He describes how one of DENSO's small robots is being used in medical machines being developed by an Italian company. These machines use fingerprint recognition to identify patients and then measure out and prepare their correct medication. "This needs to have very strict hygienic standards and to be very accurate. When it was manual nurses had to prepare 80-100 medicines per day," he says. "This was labour intensive and the chemicals involved, for example chemotherapy drugs, can be dangerous."

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