ABB: human-robot collaboration drives future development of robotics industry

Optimum combination of human and robot will maximize return on investment in automation and enable Factory of the Future

Combining the strengths of both human and robot, human-robot collaboration has increasingly become the optimal option for manufacturers to improve productivity, product quality and competitiveness, said Dr. Chunyuan Gu, President of the Asia, Middle East and Africa Region, ABB Group in his keynote speech at China National Robotics Development Forum in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province of China on April 19. Centered on human-robot collaboration, Dr. Gu’s speech focused on development trend, leading technologies and application scenarios of collaborative robots and looked forward to its broad prospects in factory of the future.

Compared to the traditional caged robots, the collaborative robots, or cobots can work safely alongside humans without fences to complete one or more tasks in a collaborative and efficient way. A strong market growth for cobots has been forecasted by Barclays who estimated that the global sales units will rocket from 58,000 in 2018 to 700,000 in 2025.

Dr. Gu commented that, the three elements of manufacturing - information, logistics and operations - have all been digitalized. Through human-machine collaboration, robots share working space and time with people to achieve the optimal efficiency. This is the Factory of the Future.

The main customer drivers behind this strong momentum range from the conventional demands for output increase and labor reduction, to the new ones such as the prospective capability to deal with low volume and high-mix production applications, capable of adapting to the significant change from mass production to mass customization. The usability of collaborative robot systems should also contribute to lowering the entry threshold to use partial automation for SMEs since collaborative applications are intended to be much easier to deploy and to use than conventional systems.

There is huge potential ahead for the deployment of human-robot collaboration in 3C, pharmaceutical, food, and logistics industries, which feature high mix, limited space and high flexibility. The robots can deliver high speed, high force, repeatability and consistent quality in contrast to human’s abilities in cognition, reaction, adaptation and improvisation. A suitable mix of humans and robots will help manufacturers to automate its production lines for best return on their limited investment.

As the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of consumer electronics, China remains the world’s largest manufacturer of mobile phones, computers and televisions, respectively producing over 90 percent, 90 percent and 70 percent of these devices in 2018. This means there is great market space for the spread of cobots in China. “ABB’s collaborative robot YuMi® was specifically designed to meet the flexible and agile production needs of the consumer electronics industry and is now deployed in many other industries to enable higher productivity and flexibility, and help build smart, connected and collaborative factories of the future.” Said Dr. Gu.

YuMi®, world's first truly collaborative robot, has been developed for small parts assembly environment in consumer electronics and many other industries. The robot's soft, padded dual arms, combined with innovative force-sensing technology ensure the safety of YuMi's human co-workers. Dr. Gu shared examples on how ABB’s YuMi® teams up with human co-workers in production, as well as its benefits to SMEs who seek for automation with limited investment.

In addition to the lightweight cobots with small footprint, large robots can also work collaboratively with human co-workers, enabled by ABB’s SafeMove2, the latest generation of its safety certified robot monitoring software. Even for large automotive plants, the biggest user of large robots, harnessing the power of human-robot collaboration will result in higher productivity.

When talking about the key technological challenges and ongoing development of collaborative robots, Dr. Gu said: “Ensuring safety and improving machine learning capabilities are the key technologies. Research and development in the various technologies used in collaborative robot applications is by no means complete. Important work remains to be done in the areas of safety-rated sensing, usability, combination of productivity and economics, as well as how to leverage AI and machine learning.”

The future cobots are expected to be more intelligent, supported by AI and machine learning technologies, and will have such typical features as ease-of-use, safe collaboration, awareness of self and of environment, mobility when needed, adaptivity in changing environment and digital integration in ABB Ability, which was described by Dr. Chunyuan Gu as the ambition level that ABB has set out with.

ABB (ABBN: SIX Swiss Ex) is a pioneering technology leader with a comprehensive offering for digital industries. With a history of innovation spanning more than 130 years, ABB is today a leader in digital industries with four customer-focused, globally leading businesses: Electrification, Industrial Automation, Motion, and Robotics & Discrete Automation, supported by its common ABB Ability™ digital platform. ABB’s market leading Power Grids business will be divested to Hitachi in 2020. ABB operates in more than 100 countries with about 147,000 employees. www.abb.com

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