Robotics: Adding agility and security to factory floors

Robots have once again made an ‘entry’, to satisfy automation demands, the need for agility, security and collaborative workforce on factory floors. And you see more of them being deployed by manufacturing companies.

IDG STAFF Jan 09th 2018 A-A+

Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest car maker has taken automation to a new level – it recently deployed as many as 104 C-series robots to help with car assembly. Interestingly, these robots are different from their predecessors.  They are much smaller taking up lesser place and are 15 percent faster ensuring more efficiency. There are a reported 5,000 robots deployed in both Manesar and Gurgaon plants bringing the ratio to 1 robot for every 4 workers.     
The above use case is a classic example of how robots are driving agility and efficiency on the factory floors. 
China – driving the demand for robots 
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) report, China with its 10 year plan to top the charts as a technological industrial nation has been aggressively deploying robots over the last couple of years. In 2015, while the rest of the world bought 254,000 robots China alone bought 68, 600 units contributing to 27 percent of  global sales. These robots were deployed largely in the electronic and electrical industry segments while automotive industry lost the pole position to stand second in deployment. Nevertheless, a total of 108,000 units were sold in the automotive sector during 2011-16. 
The European Union is the largest contributor to the robotics market, spearheaded by Western Europe whose robot density is way ahead of even China’s. Central and Eastern European countries showed the strongest growth over the last two years with an average of 25 percent and 29 percent respective rise in sales for years 2015 and 2016. 
India too deployed 100 robots for every 10,000 employees  in the manufacturing sector in 2015 . We will see this trend continuing in 2018. 
South Korea leads with 531 industrial robots deployed followed by Singapore, Japan, Germany and Sweden that make up the top five nations for highest robot density. The world average, meanwhile is just 69 per 10, 000 people employed in the manufacturing sector. 

Robots on Factory floor - Playing a multitude of roles 
Over the years, since manufacturing sector embraced automation,  it has become apparent that certain kinds of roles are best left to machines. Machines / robots are proving far more effective and productive in certain areas of manufacturing akin to what the 104 C-series robots do in the Manesar plant. 

‘’Robots are uniquely suited to any manufacturing task that is dirty, dangerous or dull. If the process doesn’t require human dexterity, mental agility or problem-solving skills, then it can be done by a robot’’
-    Douglas Peterson, GM, Universal Robots 

Agility and speed up of the assembly process are major reasons re-igniting the demand for robots on factory floors. Automation has become a key requirement in order to remain competent and sustain business and Robots are driving automation effectively and efficiently on factory floors. 
Human security on factory floor is a major concern, particularly in chemical, paint and heavy industrial equipment manufacturing. Humans can be exposed to hazardous substances or high temperatures making it a high-risk prone job, it is here that robots play a significant role. 
Another major reason is the demand for skilled workers on factory floor as the cost of employing workers increases. As per National Association of Manufacturers, of the 252,000 manufacturing companies in the US only 3,700 have 500 or more workers while most of others employ fewer than 20 people. Small companies are taking interest in deploying collaborative robots or co-bots which can be integrated to the factory floors and are designed to work alongside humans, safely. 

Impending Challenges 
All said and done, ‘employing’ robots is not as easy as humans. Having robots occupy the shop floors comes with its own set of challenges. To begin with, robots cost a lot and occupy a lot of space which can affect functioning on the floor and operational efficiency. Secondly, robots weigh a lot, for every kilogram that is to be moved, a robot will weigh 10Kg. (Check on this statement)
Also, robots need to be programmed from the beginning in case of any issue and yes, they consume a lot of power. Interestingly, lack of greater agility in movement is another challenge, most robots are single handed! 
Two major technological concerns exist. One, construction of robots has not been able to keep up pace with technologies with most factory robots lacking processing abilities to comply with latest Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems. The second however, is perhaps the biggest of all concerns – Security. 
Interestingly, while factory robots can provide security and safety to human resources on the floor, they are themselves subject to breaches and hacks via the internet as was demonstrated in the case of UBTech Alpha 2 robot.

To conclude, the IFR report, says that 2.6 million robots will be deployed by 2019 to assist in the areas of automotive, electronics and aerospace industries. There is much scope for the robotics industry to play a significant role in manufacturing provided the aforementioned challenges and concerns get comprehensively addressed.