The ability of robots to perform repetitive tasks with consistent levels of speed, accuracy and dexterity has been pivotal in the development of our modern economy. Since the 1960s robotic technologies have been progressively introduced across a wide range of industries. Today robots weld truck bodies, pick items in otherwise deserted warehouses, solder circuit boards, perform life-saving surgeries, handle nuclear fuels, explore distant worlds – and a thousand other tasks.
US analyst Grand View Research has estimated the global industrial robotics market to be worth over US$ 26.5 billion in 2022, forecasting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.5% from now until 2030. And while estimates vary, there may be anything around 3 million industrial robots in operation around the world, with by far the great density in the Asian economies of Singapore and South Korea [Source: World Robotics Report 2020 by International Federation of Robots]
Filling the global skills gap
The economic and societal value of robotic automation has never been greater. In a post-pandemic world, robots are helping fill a long-term skills gap in a depleted labour force, where it’s estimated that over 10 million positions are currently unfilled in the global manufacturing sector.
Today robots play a critical role in making a wide range of industries more sustainable. They reduce the need for human workers to commute daily, with a corresponding reduction in the need for heating, lighting, air conditioning and social distancing measures in manufacturing plants and warehouses. A robot’s ability to be controlled remotely also gives organizations greater flexibility in deploying human operators wherever is most convenient, at a different company location or totally off-site if necessary.
A robot doesn’t need weeks of on-the-job training to learn how to perform an intricate set of tasks. Once commissioned it’s productive from Day One. It can perform tirelessly, working practically 24/7 if needed to shorten production cycles and maximize productivity. It can be moved around a factory floor or warehouse to wherever it’s needed and can switch between programmed tasks in an instant.
Robots can perform delicate or repetitive tasks in environments that pose risks to human health and safety. They can handle pathogens and toxic substances without harm and can operate without the same spacing considerations as between humans, allowing more ‘workers’ to occupy the same floor area with a corresponding boost in plant capacity and output.
Addressing SMEs reluctance to automate
Global demand for robotic solutions is growing steadily, reflecting industry’s pressing needs to make their operations smarter, more efficient, and more sustainable in a competitive global market. To date, however, the technology’s benefits have principally been realized in heavy industries such as vehicle manufacture, alongside applications such as assembly, inspection, packaging, palletizing and warehouse operations.
In contrast, the technology’s uptake has been slower in many other sectors. Penetration levels remain relatively low in small- to medium-sized enterprises that stand to reap the same benefits – and more – as bigger organizations. Perceptions that robots are costly, inflexible, and difficult to program can deter smaller-scale companies from investing in the technology. Another principal area of concern has been safety. Like any other item of heavy machinery, a large industrial robot typically operates in an environment safeguarded by barriers, screens, and other protective measures to protect human workers from the risk of injury. SMEs may be concerned that even smaller-scale robotic solutions bring similar risks, and by the potential costs of mitigating them.
Here come the cobots
These outdated misconceptions are being swept away by a new wave of solutions that bring robots and human workers closer together than ever before. Collaborative robots – often known as cobots – are specifically designed to work side-by-side with human colleagues. The potential for cobots to help transform worker productivity is highlighted by various market projections that show strong growth as more companies invest in collaborative robotics. Research firm MarketsandMarkets, for example, predicts an annual growth rate of 41.5% in the take-up of cobots between 2022 and 2028, with drivers including the need to tackle skills shortages and rising production costs.
Freeing up workers to perform other more skilled or rewarding tasks, cobots can perform precise, repetitive tasks without tiring. This gives SMEs the ability to optimize the quality and consistency of their outputs while addressing labor shortages by being able to more effectively deploy their existing workforces, strengthening their competitiveness in a global marketplace.
A major part of this growth can be attributed to developments that have made cobots easier to use. In our recent global survey of 1,650 industrial companies, almost one-third of respondents cited ease of use and simple programming as their key criteria when investing in robotic automation. ABB’s YuMi®, GoFa™ and SWIFTI™ cobots are designed with ease of use firmly in mind, capable of being programmed and operated without requiring specialist robotic or software knowledge. Easy set-up is aided by ABB’s intuitive Wizard easy programming software that allows the cobot to be taught its required positions and movements in minutes, using a palette of graphical drag-and-drop command blocks. By eliminating the need for specialist coding expertise, this software enables the cobots to be quickly programmed even by novice users.
The cobots can also be used with ABB’s RobotStudio offline programming software, which enables everything from standalone robots to complete robotic cells to be tested and refined in a virtual environment before committing to a physical installation. With options including an AR app and a cloud-based version that allows collaboration between users at different sites, RobotStudio provides a powerful tool for realizing the full range of benefits that cobots – and industrial robots – can deliver.
Added to the benefits of ease of use is versatility. Both GoFa and SWIFTI are available with a choice of payloads and reaches, enabling them to handle heavier loads and perform new tasks that open new possibilities for the deployment of collaborative automation, particularly for SMEs and first time users. Through ABB’s Ecosystem program, users can also easily access an expanded range of functionalities through the availability of certified peripheral and software solutions.
Safety first: workers and robots side-by-side
Just as importantly, ABB’s cobots are equipped with an array of safety features that ensure they can be used in close proximity to humans – just like two or more workers sharing space on an assembly line or at a workbench. In the event of potential contact with a human worker, both YuMi’s and GoFa’s movements will be stopped within milliseconds until its human co-worker deems the situation safe. In the case of SWIFTI – ABB’s industrial collaborative robot – its proximity detection system, which incorporates a laser scanner and ABB’s SafeMove software, will moderate the speed and movement of the robot, bringing it to a halt if a worker is detected within its immediate working envelope. Movement will only be resumed once the worker returns to a safe distance.
In the case of YuMi and GoFa, the robots both feature softly rounded surfaces and the removal of any pinch-points that could trap clothing or body parts.
Helping humans be more human
The future for collaborative robotics is almost limitless. The agility, ease of use and cost effectiveness of today’s cobots gives smaller businesses the opportunity to make their operations more competitive and resilient in an uncertain, fast-changing world. By enabling people to do more with the assistance of robotic automation, cobots present new possibilities for augmenting worker performance, allowing companies to deploy their employees more smartly.
And as advances in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning make cobots ever smarter and more adaptable, we’re only starting to unlock a vast range of applications where robotic automation can help humans focus on what they do best – being human.