Three trends in robotics are converging to the benefit of small- and mid-size manufacturers. One trend is the decreasing price point for robots. In recent years, robots have become affordable and flexible enough in their tasks to become feasible for small manufacturers. Another trend is the collaborative nature of many new robots. They can come out of their cages and work side-by-side with human workers. Finally, there’s a shift in the level if engineering required to deploy a robot on the shop floor. In the past, robotics required complex programming. Now they can be configured without sophisticated code.
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Recent advances in robots are redefining how humans can work with machines. This is happening across a range of manufacturing segments, from medical production to small shop tool and die. “Over the last decade there are a few things that have changed in the robot market that let us focus more on the smaller companies,” Sebastien Schmitt, robotic division manager for robot manufacturer, Staubli North America, told Design News. “Robots have become more affordable and the technology has evolved to become more accessible.”
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That accessibility is a major factor in making robots feasible for small manufacturers. “A few years back, robots required engineers working with them, and they were quite complex to program,” said Schmitt. “Today with the redefined machines, we’re able to make the technology accessible to small companies.”
Meet Your New Mechanical Co-Worker
Smaller manufacturers are using robots for a variety of tasks. For one, collaborative robots can safely operate on a fast conveyer line next to human workers. Plus, they can be used by workers as a tool to lift and reposition heavy materials. “With collaborative robots, we’re redefining the man and machine interface,” said Schmitt. “Small companies now have access to single machines that can run at high speed or a machine that can let the operator get close to it and interact with it.”
Safety features are built into collaborative robots so that humans can work side-by-side or manipulate the robot to help with tasks that are beyond the strength of a human worker. “The robot will slow down and stop so the operator can get to it,” said Schmitt. “Or, the robot can help people lift heavy weights. You can drive the robot by hand to help with lifting.”
Easy to Use Complexity
The technology development in robotics has paced the rapid advances in other smart tools. “The phone industry is a good analogy. A few years back you had the flip phone, then the Palm Pilot, and now we all have smart phones. We’re doing things we didn’t think possible a few year ago,” said Schmitt. “Same with robots. A few years ago, it was a conveyor with a vision system. That was the high end. Today, that’s pretty standard. Sensors are intelligent and we can do complex movements by simply configuring them “
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.