The cyclical auto industry is in yet another slump, so it's once again time for the robotics industry to dust off a recurring strategy: expanding into areas other than automotive. This time, robot suppliers feel they've got a good chance of reducing their dependence on vehicle production.
There's no question that industrial robot makers need to reduce their reliance on cars and trucks. “Automotive is why the industry is down 38 percent in the first half of this year,” says Don Vincent, executive vice president of the Robotic Industries Assoc. (RIA) in Ann Arbor, MI.
Though robot suppliers' previous attempts to diversify have flopped (see sidebar, page 41), there are signs the effort may succeed this time. A few months ago, welding finally lost its hold on the key application for new robots, being replaced by material handling. “That points to growth in non-automotive jobs like packaging and palletizing,” Vincent says.
Many of those material handling robots are in automotive, but the huge food and pharmaceutical industries are among the many that have seen some successful implementations. Vendors are even looking beyond manufacturing, targeting America's huge service society.
Past attempts to open up new applications have seen a number of successes. Vendors feel these installations will lay the groundwork for broader success in the latest push to branch out to new applications. “Once a group has proven that robots work, you start to see more and more applications in that field. Industries like plastics and packaging are now at a tipping point, where people understand the technology and its benefits,” says Kevin Kozuszek, marketing director at Kuka Robotics Corp. in Clinton Township, MI.
Some suppliers say that in contrast to robots of the 80s, which failed to deliver on lofty promises, today's systems fulfill expectations. Like many technologies, industrial robots have become simpler to deploy as computing power lets them do more. “Robots are becoming easier and easier to use. They're faster, more accurate and have lower price points, which makes it possible to move to service applications,” Kozuszek says.
There are already some signs this focus on the service society is taking hold. Motoman Inc. unveiled RoboBar, a bartending robot, a couple years ago in large part to gain publicity.
That showed so much promise that the West Carrollton, OH, company broadened its line earlier this year, coming out with a high-production model that can repeatedly mix basic drinks in 20 seconds. “In casinos and other places where they're continuously turning out hundreds of drinks, this is generating a lot of interest,” says Craig Jennings, Motoman's president.
Two Arms Are Better Than One
While service provides a great opportunity, manufacturing remains the more immediate focus for most suppliers. Motoman recently ruggedized its bartender to create the first dual-armed industrial robot. That makes it easier for the robot to pick things up and put them together, or to grab a product and put it in a package.
Jennings notes that this will help in assembly tasks in both automotive and non-automotive environments. “The key advantage to having one robot in a workspace is that you get a 50 percent floor space savings,” Jennings says.
Other manufacturers feel there are benefits to using two independent robots for assembly and similar jobs, primarily the ability to move one robot to another site. However, they are also focusing on the cooperation between two robotic arms, devising techniques that make sure the two are communicating and moving in tight precision.
“We perform robot to robot calibration, using a pointer on one robot and a hole on the other. You run it through a calibration sequence when the work cell is set up, then you don't have to do it again,” said Virgil Wilson, senior engineer at Fanuc Robotics America Inc.
Robot manufacturers are also adding more axes of motion as they focus on more delicate tasks. In the past, five axes was fairly high-end. Motoman's new dual-armed robot starts with seven ranges of motion, going up to 13.
Kuka is adding more degrees of freedom and focusing on light weight. It's developed a lightweight, seven-axes robot that will be formally unveiled soon. At under 30 lb, it can be moved easily. A gripper on one end can link it to a stable base, while the other end can be used to grasp objects.
That makes it possible to move the robot to a job instead of bringing materials to the robot. That will be a huge benefit in small facilities and in service industries, Kozuszek says.
Though increasing precision, additional flexibility, and simplified integration with other robots makes it possible to automate new tasks, simplified setup is perhaps the most important reason for industry optimism. Programming robots once required experts, now it's far easier to create software that lets robots perform different tasks. Kuka's lightweight robot can be programmed by simply moving it through the desired task, a technique that's becoming increasingly common.
For more demanding technical jobs, some manufacturers now let companies use product design software to help set up the robot. This meshes with the improved accuracy of today's robots, which can handle parts that require fine precision. This simplifies setup in addition to simplifying the plant floor manager's job. “We can convert C code into a robot path, or take a 3D CAD drawing and use it to set up the robot for a task,” Jennings says.
This ability to use CAD files to program robots also helps on the sales side, since the code can be used to simulate the performance of the robot. Companies that haven't used robots before want to see how robots will perform in their factory. While a marketing team could justify setting up a work cell for an automaker who might use it in many plants, that's not practical for small companies that only need a few robots.
It's now simple to let customers see exactly how a robot will function in their facility. “It's almost a given that companies want to see robots simulated in their application before they buy,” Vincent says.
While these tools help companies that want to manage their own production operations, there are a growing number of companies that want to outsource technical jobs like manufacturing setup. As this trend has taken hold and the potential for non-automotive sales has grown, a growing support infrastructure has sprung up. “There's really been an upturn in the use of system integrators who are very specialized in applications like food,” Vincent says.