Consumer demands and competitive pressures continue to inspire forward-thinking operational strategies that include digital transformation objectives. As a result, a range of innovative robotic solutions with intuitive peripherals are being deployed to effectively deal with labor shortages, supply chain challenges, general market fluctuations, product quality concerns and more. With 2024 expected to bring more economic uncertainty to evolving industrial landscapes, manufacturers continue to focus on gaining competitiveness via a variety of methods for a more resilient future.
A persistent focus on workforce development is one of those methods. An uptick in manufacturing vacancies has nearly 75 percent of executives concerned about attracting and retaining a quality workforce, according to a Deloitte report. So much so that for many, it’s considered their top business challenge of the year. Along with offering flexible hours and compensation incentives, manufacturers are seeing greater value in robotic automation for maintaining tight production quotas and boosting employee safety and morale.
Key to robot implementation success means also investing in the necessary skills to keep up with automation needs. Ranging from PLC and robot programming to robot maintenance, quality assurance, lean processes and more, there are a variety of skills to consider. Experienced robot suppliers and integrators are deep wells of information on these subjects and can often help address these requirements, as needed.
More cobots, high deposition
Initially ideal for small-part welding with basic welds or simple pick-and-place tasks, the use of collaborative robots is growing throughout shop floor environments. Today, new tool developments are enabling cobots to embrace technology previously used on industrial robots, or even newly developed cutting edge and intuitive tools.
For example, greater process control can be gained by cobots via advanced power supplies. Similarly, the use of laser vision systems for seam tracking and adaptive welding can now be used on select collaborative models. Due to their improved durability and ease of use, more of these robots will be used in the new year to bolster the workforce and maintain throughput – with more manufacturers utilizing cobots for welding, fixture loading and unloading, machine tending and palletizing.
A result of onshoring and labor shortages, continued growth for extremely efficient, flexible and repeatable robots remains steady for the fabrication of general industry tasks. This is especially true for high-deposition welding and the welding of complex parts. While the automotive industry has been extremely automated for some time, all companies – even those familiar with robotic automation – are desperate for ways to maintain production rates. The introduction of new process technologies and materials is causing company leaders to give a second look at those applications once deemed poor automation candidates.
Where high-deposition tasks are concerned, several items are facilitating robotic welding success. The use of metal-cored wire for MIG welding applications can help increase torch travel speeds for increased efficiency and stable wire transfer, while robust robotic weld torches, such as the Miller Hercules, can preheat specially formulated metal-cored filler metals that are made to work in tandem for tackling heavy fabrication tasks.
Manufacturers are also utilizing dual-wire processes, such as Lincoln Electric’s HyperFill, which allow for creating large welds at faster speeds with greater ease. This MIG welding method uses two wires to produce a larger weld droplet, generating a large weld puddle that is easier to control.
To alleviate the robot learning curve and minimize robot downtime, manufacturers will show a greater dependence on innovative robot tools that facilitate easy path programming. From hand-guided teaching capability to programming pendants with graphical interfaces, a variety of tasks are becoming easier to automate. Select teach pendants, such as Yaskawa’s Smart Pendant, use built-in technology to facilitate greater ease of use. This pendant uses patented Smart Frame technology to determine the operator’s orientation relative to the robot, making the robot user the frame of reference and eliminating the use of conventional coordinate (X, Y, Z) frames for easy command of the robot movement.
The use of smarter software is also proving to be a robot application gamechanger. Intelligently designed software focused on the user experience can now be used to generate the robot path in minutes, compared to hours, days or weeks. Take arc welding of high-mix products for example. Select software, offered by companies such as Path Robotics and Abagy Robotic Systems, combines artificial intelligence (AI) and machine vision with robust hardware, allowing users to upload a 3-D model of a product in a CAD format before setting the weld parameters needed. Then, the programming details are determined automatically by the software, facilitating an expedient click-and-weld approach.
Similarly, adaptive welding systems, like Novarc’s NovAI, can enable a robot to adapt a programmed path based on the characteristics of the weld puddle. Capable even of automatic tack detection, as well as root pass seam tracking and gap measurement, systems such as these combine intelligent image processing with state-of-the-art AI algorithms and advanced robotic controls to fully automate the welding process. Originally used in pipe welding, the addition of six degrees-of-freedom (DoF) robots to this technology expands the possibilities for heavy deposition welding and, potentially, welding of complex parts in the near future.
The emergence of digital twin technology is especially helpful, providing the ability to impose an accurate 3-D modeling and physics engines of a robotics operation into a virtual environment where AI can help test and enhance it before it is implemented. From greater dexterity to the speed of acquisition and recognition of objects, intelligent machine hardware is being combined with AI to address the simulation-to-reality (Sim2Real) gap, allowing learning data from simulation to expertly train a robot and enhance workflow without production disruption.
As the year progresses, expect to see more startups in the robotic AI space bringing highly relevant applications for welding, inspection, assembly, and pick and place to life.
With respect to AI, robots are getting smarter inside their own controller. Before, most AI systems relied on external CPU processing to determine a specific task and generate traditional robot code to control the robot. Newer systems take direct control of the robot for reduced latency during the process. In the case of Yaskawa’s YNX controller, an onboard ACU unit allows for task-based programming where the user can train the robot locally with onboard vision and sensors without necessary use of external software and hardware.
Smart factory solutions
To increase asset efficiency, worker safety, labor productivity and product quality, while cultivating cost reduction and sustainability, more manufacturers of all sizes are optimizing current production environments with a myriad of advanced technologies to create integrated smart factories. Often including high-performance robots, along with internet-connected sensors and devices for production monitoring and asset management, these high-tech facilities foster next-level manufacturing operations that can benefit an entire extended enterprise. Moreover, with higher degrees of automation driving data, factories can even be simulated and tested before costly execution.
Extremely effective, proven edge server solutions that use a leading OPC-UA (Open Platform Communication Unified Architecture) interface for production monitoring facilitate an integrated, intelligent and innovative (i3-Mechatronics) approach to data collection. These solutions provide a one-to-one topology where clients (aka: devices, sensors, robots, etc.) request data and servers respond in a timely manner with that data. Each client can interact with multiple servers and vice versa. Sometimes, a single device may even operate as both a client and server.
If needed, additional functionality is available via OPC-UA Publish/Subscribe (PubSub) AddOns. Regardless, this method enables manufacturing supervisors and warehouse managers to see what is happening at any point on the value creation chain to gain actional insights for customizing operations.
Select small and medium-size enterprises with less bandwidth for machine management and subsequent maintenance will continue to shift toward aftermarket services that facilitate remote monitoring for timely preventative services. As more companies turn to robotic automation, the use of virtual field assistants will grow, enabling uptime for maximum ROI.
Anticipated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 36.3 percent by 2030, according to Fortune Business Insight, the global edge computing market and the use of monitoring platforms continue to experience substantial growth. As mentioned, the need for data-driven optimized planning, as well as the ability to ward off cyberattacks, are key drivers of this usage. Moving forward, executives will seek to bolster data operations via more secure edge server infrastructure, especially where production machinery and internet-connected devices are concerned.
Continued sustainability shift
Traditionally, the integration of robotics and automation in production processes is known for enabling significant improvements in efficiency, productivity and quality. Most recently, high-performance robots are also being touted for optimizing resource utilization, reducing waste and enhancing energy efficiency. Where the latter is concerned, newer Yaskawa robots with payloads of 35 kg or more are now able to convert kinetic energy from downward and sideways motions directly into the power supply system, depending on the motion profile, considerably reducing the energy requirements of robots.
As an influx of large manufacturers takes a bold stance – requiring subcontractors and suppliers to be more sustainably focused – companies of all sizes across a wide range of markets will make a concerted effort to create and fulfill green initiatives. Additionally, the application of sustainable materials and design principles in the development of robotic systems is gaining traction. Streamlined robot models, energy-efficient motors and functions, and the uptick in usage of lightweight, eco-friendly materials all contribute to promote a greener, more sustainable future.
The era of digital transformation is here and it supplies the necessary tools to optimize operations. From extremely compact workcells and portable cobot workstations to larger turnkey or custom workcells, the use of robot arms is proven to address multiple challenges on the shop floor. While the year ahead may hold uncertainty, partnering with robotic experts to minimize production pain points is a smart choice moving forward.