Sunday, May 19, 2013

Recent Advances in Industrial Robots and Their Implications on Manufacturing

Industrial robots (e.g., ABB, PUMA) have been quite successful in mass production assembly lines. For example, they are routinely used to weld, paint, and join parts in automobile industry. However, small and medium manufacturers (SMM) in the US have largely stayed away from using industrial robots. They continue to rely on manual labor and this makes it hard for them to compete with overseas suppliers with low labor costs.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) defines small manufacturers as companies with 500 or fewer employees and medium-sized manufacturers as companies with 2,500 or fewer employees. The NAM estimates that that the US has close to 300,000 SMM, representing a very important segment of the manufacturing sector. As we move towards shorter product life cycles and customized products, the future of manufacturing in the US will depend upon the ability of SMM to remain cost competitive.

This blog post explores the reasons behind the lack of adoption of industrial robotics technology by SMM and recent advances in robotics that might change the status quo.

Let us explore a representative scenario to understand the limitations of the current industrial robots and why they are not used by SMM. Imagine that you are working in a small company and building a prototype of new medical device. You are under extreme time pressure to meet an important deadline. As you are assembling the device, you realize the bracket is too compliant. You need to laser cut it again in a much stiffer material. The good news is that it will only take six minutes to cut the bracket. But the logistics associated with it will take an hour. You really need to continue assembling the rest of the assembly and testing the controller. You simply don’t have an hour to spend and can certainly use an assistant right now!

Here is what you would like your assistant to do - walk over to the material storage area, locate the right material, pick up the material, take it to the laser cutter, open the laser cutter, place the material in it, press the button to start cutting, wait for the part to finish, open the laser cutter, pick up the part, clean it, and bring it to you. Obviously human assistants can do all of these tasks without even flexing their cognitive muscles. I am sure that they can do all of these tasks while texting and surfing the net on their smart phones! Unfortunately the current industrial robots simply cannot do these tasks. So you simply cannot get a robot assistant today!

Robots that rule the assembly line have the following four limitations. First, they are immobile. They cannot go to the task location. The work has to be brought to them. Second, their dexterity is extremely limited. Simple tasks such as opening shelves and precisely placing and securing a previously unseen part in a machine are out of their capabilities. Third, it takes a long time to program them. So using robots on no-repetitive tasks is simply counter-productive. Finally, robots cannot work in the close proximity of humans because of safety concerns. So you can forget about a robot assistant walking over and handing you a tool or a part to assist you on the shop floor.

Most SMM use highly automated machines (e.g., CNC machines, laser cutter, water-jet cutters, CNC press-brakes, 3D printers). However, SMM shop floors tend to be unstructured and often go through changes to meet the needs of the projects at hand. Main sources of manual labor in SMM are material transport and handling, machine setup and calibration, inspection, clean-up, and packaging. Unfortunately, the current industrial robots that are designed for mass production assembly lines are of not much use in these tasks. So industrial robots offer very little value to SMM!

Recent advances in robotics are challenging the status quo and aiming to turn robots into important tools for SMM. I would like to share the following important trends:

  • Mobile manipulators are robots that can transport themselves to the work site. I recently saw demonstrations of mobile manipulators developed by Kuka that show impressive capabilities. This capability will be very useful in expanding the role of robots in manufacturing, particularly from the SMM point of view.
  • Dexterity has been a major obstacle to the widespread use of robots in manufacturing. Recent developments on robot hands are targeting to overcome this obstacle (e.g., Schunk and Barrett hands). 3D printing enables users to quickly create their own customized grippers in few hours.
  • Baxter from Rethink Robotics is aiming to eliminate the need for writing code to program robots. Instead, robots can be programmed by demonstrating the tasks. This is expected to empower workers on the shop floor. They will be able to start utilizing robots without the need to wait for a robot programmer to assist them.
  • Recent advances in human-safe robots are enabling robots to work in the close proximity of humans. Kuka lightweight arm and Baxter are representative examples of advances in this area. Many researchers are developing methods to track human operators in the workspace to make robots aware of humans in the workspace and change planned robot motions to avert injury to humans. For example, +Krishnanand Kaipa , +Carlos Morato , and +Boxuan Zhao  in my lab have developed a system to monitor a human operator working in the close proximity of a robot using four Microsoft Kinect sensors. This information is used by the robot to update its plan. The video of this system is shown below.

I believe that ultimately the convergence of the above mentioned technologies will create the second generation of industrial robots that will revolutionize the manufacturing industry. 

Once the demand increases for these robots, the cost for them will start coming down. There is no reason why low-end industrial robots cannot be sold for less than ten thousand dollars once the economy of scale kicks in. This in turn will make robots affordable for SMM and manufacturing cost-competitive in high wage countries.