Industry is evolving in line with the market, demanding an increasingly agile work environment that utilizes smart technologies. This article will provide an overview of how smart robots are changing the face of traditional manufacturing sectors.
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Smart Factories and Robotics
The world is currently undergoing rapid technological change, termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Many innovative technologies have been introduced in recent decades, including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, smart sensors, soft robotics, wearable technologies, and microrobots. A recent term that has been used to describe the connected industrial environment is Industry 4.0, otherwise known as the Connected Industry.
The shortcomings of traditional automated systems and industrial robots have facilitated developing smart robots with enhanced autonomy. Smart robots are designed with cognitive abilities that aim to mimic human operators. Additionally, in line with the concepts of Industry 4.0, data and information flow are prioritized in the intelligent factory.
The Characteristics of a Smart Factory
The smart factory takes advantage of innovative technologies to improve productivity, streamline processes, and provide more flexibility in day-to-day operations. To understand how collaborative and smart robots are integral to the manufacturing sector in this new industrial revolution, attention must be paid to the characteristics of the smart factory.
Firstly, a smart factory possesses levels of connectivity that were previously not possible in industrial manufacturing. The use of big data, artificial intelligence, and Internet of Things-connected devices are central to the idea. The vast amount of data generated leads to increased process control and less uncertainty in operations.
Secondly, the smart factory concept provides more flexibility in processes and operations. This helps the company adapt to changing market conditions in an intelligent manner. Downtime is avoided as much as possible and losses are minimized. By taking advantage of revolutionary technologies, the smart factory is a more streamlined industrial environment.
The production line in a smart factory is vastly different from traditional factories. The connectivity and automation facilitated utilizing intelligent mobile manipulators, smart robots and automated systems accessible to companies of all sizes across all sectors. This means that companies that can streamline their production, use fewer resources, and manufacture high-quality products at a lower cost have a competitive advantage.
Moreover, using intelligent, connected robots in a smart factory allows enhanced labor management. The previously “menial” tasks that would have been done by humans are carried out by robots. Cost, safety, and productivity are improved.
The smart factory is a collaborative workspace that takes advantage of the strengths and characteristics of both humans and automated systems. Workers are not replaced but relocated to improve the overall operation of the smart factory.
Types of Smart Robots Used in Industrial Manufacturing
Traditionally, robots have been limited to the assembly line. While their degree of autonomy and ability to carry out delicate tasks has improved in recent years, the need for truly smart robots has grown.
There are many types of robots in use in modern industry, and they all differ according to their type, technology, application, and structure. These include fixed robots, AMRs, and cobots. Further examples include SCARA, delta, and cartesian robots. Choosing the right robot for a task depends on several factors such as location, individual needs, production focus, automation level, and ease of integration with technologies such as AI or image processing.
Integrating sensors and machine learning technologies into robots improve their intelligence and allows them to work with a degree of independence from human operators. An example of a smart robot changing the face of manufacturing is the autonomous guided vehicle (AGV). These help to improve logistics by autonomously moving goods around the factory floor.
AGVs can be equipped with a manipulator, making them into mobile manipulators which can carry out tasks around a factory. Their operational autonomy enhances the production line’s flexibility, and elements such as sensors and neural networks can be incorporated into the design. Data can be collected and fed back to a central hub to improve their efficiency and help them learn.
Overcoming Challenges and Improving Uptake of Smart Robotics in SMEs
On average, according to the International Federation of Robotics, there are six robots per 100,000 employees in major robot markets apart from China. Additionally, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up 99% of industrial companies in the EU. There are huge opportunities for increased uptake of intelligent robotics and the implementation of the smart factory concept.
The Danish Technological Institute found that 89% of Danish Companies which have under 34 employees do not have any automation. This contrasts with Denmark’s position as the country with the fifth-highest density of robots in manufacturing.
The main advantage of smart robotics and automation is lower production costs, less waste, and fewer product errors. However, some challenges affect the uptake of innovative technology that must be addressed. These include initial cost, changing production processes, a lack of technological expertise and space, and the unsuitability of current programming techniques for frequent changes in highly customized products produced in small batches.
The future of industrial manufacturing is more connected, data-driven and will use emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning, and robotics. Although there is vast potential in the smart factory concept for reducing costs, improving safety, and streamlining processes, companies, especially SMEs, are reluctant to implement changes due to economic and technical challenges. These challenges must be addressed as industry moves toward a more connected, sustainable future.
Continue reading: Maximizing Industrial Output with Autonomous Vehicles
References and Further Reading
Perzylo, A et al. (2019) SMERobotics: Smart Robots for Flexible Manufacturing [online] IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine 26(1) | ieeexplore.ieee.ogg. Available at: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8601323
Robotnik (2021) Smart factories: how robots are leading industry changes [online] robotnik.eu. Available at: https://robotnik.eu/smart-factories-robots/
Gestalt Robotics (2019) Smart AGVs and Mobile Manipulators [online] gestalt-robotics.com. Available at: https://www.gestalt-robotics.com/technology-modules/smart-automated-guided-vehicles
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