It’s 2022, so these days, it’s not earthshaking to hear that the shop down the road invested in an automated shuttle table for their laser, a new software package for tracking inventory, or a cobot that’s capable of picking and placing tasks as well as welding. Automation’s growing popularity isn’t news anymore; instead, the talk of the town is how easy it is to use and implement.
To understand this growing trend, FAB Shop Magazine reached out to a handful of leaders in the industrial automation space, including ABB Robotics, Yaskawa America Inc., Universal Robots (UR), Scalable Robotics and OnRobot. These companies, which all have a laser focus on easy-to-use and easy-to-implement automation, answered a series of questions that covered the early innovations, the atmosphere in which they launched, and the growing confidence and adoption that followed. Participants in this article also offered their take on the future of automation and what the industry can expect.
The rise of easy-to-use and easy-to-implement automation is a long story in the making. Automation companies have been entrenched in the development of user-friendly products, be it for traditional industrial robots, cobots or software, for some time now. To understand the market conditions that justified the R&D to launch it, Josh Leath, senior product manager at Yaskawa, sets the stage with a caveat.
“’User friendly’ is fairly subjective, especially over the past 40 years,” he says. “It could be on multiple aspects of capital equipment that can be simplified – from planning and setup to programming, operating and maintaining.”
In the early days, Leath says it was “large companies with deep pockets and lots of patience” that were the first to approach the idea of simplifying complex automation. But it required more than deep pockets, he says. It required engineering, training and know-how. It would also require market education.
Yaskawa’s first foray into easy-to-use automation was also the first in the industry to tackle the task of simplifying the concept of a pre-engineered workcell. Yaskawa ArcWorlds and its family of products offered welding automation for different part sizes with a simplified layout, installation, controls and training process all while minimizing cycle time. It was a highly welcomed option for fabricators compared to the complicated automation they were used to.
Moving forward with its focus on easy-to-use automation, Yaskawa introduced and patented coordinated motion, giving programmers the ability to use a single pendant and job structure while maintaining sub-millimeter accuracy between all devices.
“We saw that when a customer implements one robot or cell, they tend to add multiple robots and positioners to future cells to reduce cycle time or expand reachability, which can be complicated to program,” Leath says. “Imagine the complexity of using multiple programming pendants to try to synchronize multiple robots and multiple axes without collisions.”
These major innovations were just the beginning for Yaskawa. The company also introduced patented devices like MotoMount, a hardware compliance device that attaches to the headstock and tailstock of a spanning positioner to overcome imperfect installation environments, remove stress from the positioner and the tooling, and enable customers to easily design drop-in tooling. Yaskawa, in partnership with Robotiq, also introduced Kinetiq Teaching, a simple lead-to-teach product that allows users to move a robot arm from point to point and record their program using an icon-driven interface.
“At that time, cobots weren’t yet available, and this type of feature was undermarketed and not often asked for,” Leath says. “Traditional customers liked the ease of programming, but did not mind the muscle memory they had built up, in addition to the more powerful controls traditional programming offers.”
Ultimately, it took the revolution of cobots for people to realize the importance of easy teaching and, therefore, begin to consider automation. Cobots’ portability further fueled interest in automation in general.
In the end, however, it all comes down to Leath’s comment about the subjective nature of the term “ease of use.” Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development and strategic marketing at UR, also felt inclined to address its definition.
“Usability means providing easy-to-use interfaces and programming methods that empower people with little or no previous robotics experience to deploy and program our robots,” he says. “For robots to become more commonplace in SMEs, ease of programming is key and much of our effort is still focused on supporting these tools and our free online training, but other factors contribute to the usability, too.
“For example,” he adds, “our cobots have a small footprint and are easy to move around a facility, making them easy to deploy without having to redesign your entire manufacturing plant. Moreover, our cobots’ safety features also mean that they can, following a risk assessment, be deployed without the extensive fencing and guarding required by traditional industrial robots.”
By now, it’s common knowledge that UR is in large part responsible for the rise in easy-to-use automation, which began when the company sold the world’s first cobot in late 2008. From the beginning, its founder, Esben Østergaard, placed usability at the core of the company’s launch. His vision was to make industrial automation possible for small and medium-sized companies.
Nearly 15 years later, Østergaard’s intuition is proving useful as market conditions for easy-to-use and easy-to-implement solutions are fairly similar today as when UR first opened its doors. Campbell sees the same labor shortages as UR did back in 2008 and the industry’s same “quest for continuous quality and productivity improvement.” Even the high-mix, low-volume production environment was an early driver. The difference today is that those conditions are only getting stronger.
Tom Fuhlbrigge, founder and CEO of Scalable Robotics, adds a few more factors to the drivers of today. He also sees a confluence of new macro-economic and social factors.
“With rising base costs overseas, serious shipping costs and timing issues, many U.S. companies are reshoring their manufacturing just to be able to get their product to their customers,” he explains. “Add in the Covid-19 situation where workers are dropping out of the workforce plus a decrease in immigration and just an overall reduction in the number of available workers, especially skilled workers, and it’s a tough situation.”
And that’s not even mentioning the ever-growing shortage of welders and the cost involved in training new productive welders. While robotic welding can increase throughput by up to three times, Fuhlbrigge says training and programming hurdles can have a big impact on timely ROI.
“If you have high-volume, low-mix production, such as an automotive OEM, then your programming needs are low and you can likely even outsource them, so robotic automation is common,” he explains. “However, if you’re like most fab shops, you have high-mix, low-volume production, meaning the programming time, knowledge and training to make a welder into a robot programmer are significant and costly. With traditional programming methodologies for runs of less than 50 or 100 parts, it often doesn’t pay to take the time to program and tune the robot processes.”
Based on customer input, Fuhlbrigge learned that the cost to train a welder to be a robot programmer could be as high as $15,000. With employee turnover, it could be a recurring cost that is clearly not sustainable. So that’s why he launched Scalable and the no-code, no-CAD interface for robotic arc welding at Fabtech 2021 in cooperation with ABB. The goal was to remove the last barriers to robotic welding by enabling a welder to act as a highly skilled robot programmer with less than a day of training.
“We reduced programming times by a 10x factor compared to regular teach pendant programming,” he says.
Over the years, this confluence of easy-to-use hardware and software inspired the formation of additional startups that could support the growing trend. As an example, the founders behind OnRobot predicted the need for peripherals and end-of-arm tooling early on. So, they launched their company to design and build easy-to-use, collaborative hardware and software specifically for UR.
Kristian Hulgard, general manager of OnRobot’s Americas division, says the company launched its all-electric, collaborative RG2 Gripper in 2014, which was “built out of a garage by two fellows that used to work at Universal Robots. Since then, OnRobot now has close to 20 automation products that are brand agnostic, allowing them to be deployed on any robot.
“When it first launched, the idea that you could just use a plug-and-play gripper and then rely on software to control it instead of compressed air and valves was quite alien to people,” Hulgard says. “OnRobot’s founders were visionaries – they saw that this was the way the market was moving, despite the market being very small at the time.”
Through it all, longtime automation innovator, ABB, was also deep in R&D, focusing on a variety of aspects of easy-to-use automation, including programming software, controller systems and robotic arm hardware. Tim Paton, operations manager of general industry and electronics USA at ABB, says the company has worked diligently to balance the conflicting requirements of providing easy-to-use and easy-to-program robots with the ability to offer advanced application capabilities.
“As the capability of a robotic system becomes more sophisticated, there are additional operating and programming requirements needed to support these capabilities,” Paton says. “ABB developed products like ‘lead-through teaching’ back in the 1990s with the intent to make robot programming easier. We also increased the functionality of our teach pendants and have used human machine interfaces that allow operators to run the equipment more easily.
“While these strategies make operation easier, in some cases, they increase the complexity of integration,” he adds. “The big difference with the latest trajectory of the ‘easy-to-use/-implement’ trend is the focus on the programming and integration tasks and finding ways to make these easier, as well.”
Understandably, there is often a learning curve involved with the launch of new products – even easy-to-use products. In the context of industrial automation, there is also the hurdle of preconceived perceptions that must be overcome.
“While the industry has always worked to make operation easy, the general philosophy of the industry has long been that robots require advanced training and knowledge to program, commission and install,” Paton says. “This perception is difficult to change over the short term, and the prevailing sentiment that robots require a staff of experts to operate and realize the full potential advantages of automation remain, though it is slowly eroding in many sectors.”
He also points to the rules and industry regulations around keeping people safe that led many to still believe that a dedicated robotic expert is needed on staff. Regardless, Paton says there is good news in the sense that small- to medium-size enterprises are starting to take notice of robot systems that have become far easier to implement and operate and are rethinking their preconceptions.
So, while change is good, it can also be slow-going and hard – especially with “shockingly new” offerings, says UR’s Campbell about the company’s North American market entry. Prior to UR’s cobot launch, “people were accustomed to industrial robots with large footprints, held within massive cages and programmable only by robotics experts,” he says. To say the least, “cage-free robots that could be deployed by non-experts” made UR’s product a “star attraction at trade shows.”
Early skepticism wasn’t just coming from end users, however, but also from traditional industrial robot makers that initially failed to see the potential of cobot systems, Campbell says. Yaskawa’s Leath explains the thought process behind the skepticism.
“’Ease of use’ ideas and products are generated out of one of two needs: to simplify a necessary but difficult aspect of existing products or to remove any barriers to adoption of a greater product,” he says. “Generally speaking, the former of those two almost always increases user experience, customer satisfaction and retention. The latter can be trickier, especially if the ease-of-use functions aren’t abundantly clear. There’s been a lot of adopters to easy teach throughout the industry with mixed success due to limitations of the equipment.
“For our own example, when we offered easy-teach hardware in the past, it was a great ‘try this out’ tool to get a conversation started,” he adds. “However, once users realized that pendant teaching was more flexible and really not that difficult, they either didn’t purchase the add-on or removed it if they did. This showed us that ease of use also requires capability or refining to a specific customer type.”
OnRobot’s Hulgard has a similar take on the early push-back. When products or concepts are not well known or understood, skepticism arises in almost all areas, including pricing, functionality, quality and maintenance. For OnRobot’s RG2 gripper, a higher price point resulted in a hesitance to adopt it even though it was designed for greater flexibility and control when compared to the pneumatic grippers that were already on the market.
Thanks to the rise in cobots in general, however, OnRobot’s gripper has gained popularity and perhaps more importantly, trust. Hulgard says customers are finding that the company’s hardware and software offerings provide the same benefits of traditional industrial automation while remaining easy to use and requiring much shorter deployment times.
“If you fast forward to 2022, there is massive demand for fast and easily deployable automation, especially in the metal and machining industry, which is one of the most enthusiastic adopters of user-friendly collaborative automation,” he says. “Now we’re at an all-time high.”
The same is proving true for Scalable, which is mounting its technology to a standard, longstanding welding robot model where skepticism in functionality has been limited. Fuhlbrigge says there are still a lot of questions surrounding Scalable’s offerings, particularly about the product’s interface and its potential limitations.
“The hardest part of introducing any new technology is getting over the classic ‘so where is this/how many are installed?’ hump,” he explains. “And then the sales cycle in robotics can be very slow, especially compared to straight software products.”
There have been plenty of wins for the team at Scalable, though. Fuhlbrigge says that customers get excited about the short time it takes to get from a new part to high-quality welding.
“A recent customer showed us that they could do a complex, heavy multi-pass weld – three passes on a six segment, five corner seam – on a unique part with the time from setting the part on the weld table through scanning the part, teaching and tuning the path and then starting to weld in under 8 min.,” he says. “And they didn’t need any CAD, any prior setup or really need to know anything about the part except for what weld parameters to select.”
Today, in 2022, a time of increased adoption and great need, UR’s Campbell says the main differentiator between now and the early days of user-friendly robotics is the proof in the pudding. Essentially, it took one forward-thinking customer back in 2008 to turn the tides. Today, UR has more than 50,000 cobots deployed across the globe and across a wide spectrum of applications. Competitors also took note and began developing their own collaborative units.
“Our first customer, Linatex, a Danish supplier of technical plastics and rubber for industrial applications, took a leap of faith when it deployed a Universal Robots cobot on its production line,” he says. “Today’s customers are purchasing robot technology that has proven its value time and time again across all industry verticals.”
ABB’s Paton adds an increase in safety to the current list of drivers, citing the industry’s newfound acceptance that safety can be managed by a “computer.” ABB’s SafeMove monitoring software is a good example of these advancements.
“SafeMove takes the form of a Safety PLC or other safety-rated intelligent devices that meet the safety codes by design,” he says. “It eliminates the need to hard wire safety circuits that are hard to design and troubleshoot if issues come up. It also allows system integrators to handle very high safety complexity with standard programming techniques. When contained within the ‘computer,’ it’s easier to produce standard products that are complex in the background but simple in their interface.”
The changing landscape can’t be sufficiently described, of course, without mentioning the newly converted naysayers.
“The grumpy metal machining shop manager of yesteryear who said things like, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ and was, in general, not very enthusiastic about new technologies is a bit of a dinosaur nowadays,” says OnRobot’s Hulgard. “Thousands of successful deployments have proven the technology and won over those grumpy managers.”
He attributes some of their new attitudes to the “desperate shortage of labor” in the industry, which almost forces metalworking companies to move forward and evolve or truly go the way of the dinosaur.
“You have to modernize your machine shop,” he says. “And whether you manage to attract younger workers or not, you will still need something to load and unload your CNC machine.”
It should be of no surprise to hear that the participants in this article predict an ongoing and growing adoption of easy-to-use and implement automation in the metals fabricating industry moving forward. Paton says the development of new AI solutions is and will continue to be a big part of that growth.
“New AI solutions are constantly improving the ability to incorporate sensors into the process to solve problems that were impossible to solve with robots in the past,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be in the robotics industry.”
It’s also an exciting time to be at ABB as the company recently introduced a collaborative welding solution based on GoFa, its higher payload cobot, which can now be programmed using ABB’s lead-through programming function to tack and weld small parts. Furthermore, ABB customers can also take advantage of its RAPID programming language for higher level welding applications.
UR’s Campbell agrees that adoption and functionality will continue on its upward path, citing the rapid and now historic increase of welding applications a cobot can take on.
“While most early cobot systems focused on MIG welding, the latest systems can take on hardfacing tasks, plasma cutting, multipass welding and TIG welding,” he explains. “Complex applications are also possible today, including complex cuts on 3-D shapes and large structural welding. Expect to see new applications that were once considered impossible for cobots to become possible – and even commonplace – in the years ahead.”
Beyond the tangible products, OnRobot’s Hulgard says the way people think about usability and collaboration is also evolving. He says the two main aspects of collaborative automation are safety and usability and both must be incredibly straightforward.
“This means plug-and-play hardware and peripherals,” he says. “It means enabling wide compatibility by being robot agnostic. It means providing free online training resources like Learn OnRobot to support end users of all skill levels through the automation deployment process.
“We expect to see more and more components become collaborative, so that every single part of the application – the conveyor, the pallet station, the gripper, the sensors, the camera – will be collaborative,” he adds. “And the more components that become collaborative, the faster you can deploy your application and the faster and easier it is to automate.”
To get an idea of potential future growth, Hulgard says the International Federation of Robotics predicts that the industry will deploy 10 times as many robots in the next five years compared to today. Hulgard says that will only be possible, however, with more collaborative and plug-and-play components to enable faster deployment.
But don’t forget about traditional industrial robots. Yaskawa’s Leath says the use of legacy automation is set to rise, as well.
“Cobots don’t offer the speed and payload capabilities of industrial robots,” he says. “And users pay a premium for the added force sensors in a cobot. Those who are using cobots now will quickly see the advantage of robots in general and will want to add more, but it’s up to automation companies to provide them the correct solution.”
Basically, it’s no longer up for debate: Increased automation and the use of technology in the industry is a given. Scalable’s Fuhlbrigge says there just aren’t enough workers to continue doing things manually and that the price of offshoring continues to rise.
“This creates a great opportunity,” he says, “for new solutions that make manufacturing processes easier to accomplish while also improving productivity and reducing costs.”