Robot, from the Czech word, robota, meaning ‘forced labour’, was first used to denote a fictional humanoid in a 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. Robots have since captured the imagination of sci-fi writers and industrialists alike. While they became an almost immediate feature in films of fiction such as Metropolis (1927), it wasn’t until 1961 that we saw them appear in the real world of industry.
General Motors installed the first industrial robot, a one-armed welding machine called Unimate, back in 1961. Fifty years later, the automotive industry is still one of the biggest users, with more than 80% of car production completed by machines. Most industrial robots are large, heavy, expensive single-purpose machines capable of repeatedly performing precise steps such as lifting heavy objects, cutting metal or welding. Expensive to program, incapable of handling even small deviations, and so dangerous that they must be physically separated from human workers by cages, they remain impractical to other types of manufacturing. Until now.
The days of needing highly structured environments for robots are fading, and more capable machines are on the rise. Robots are breaking free of their cages, and a new generation of smarter, more adaptive, collaborative industrial robots has emerged. Designed to work alongside their human counterparts, collaborative robots, or co-bots, can safely and effectively interact with human workers while performing simple industrial tasks. Their flexibility allows them to perform multiple tasks in multiple industries, while also decreasing the amount of space needed.
This new breed of flexible robots is driving a robotic resurgence
This collaborative technology is offering huge advantages to businesses, production lines, and workers. The other powerful factor is that they are effectively a platform, able to be upgraded to perform new tasks without a change in hardware. The old industrial robots did one thing, whereas these can do many – and they increase their capabilities all the time. In the past, every time you needed to change the purpose of the robot, you needed a new robot. This was expensive, making them cost effective only in narrow situations, thereby becoming capital investment decisions that companies thought very carefully about, limiting the growth of the robot industry.
Now this is changing. Software updates can dramatically alter the capabilities and performance of the robot, and different grippers can be installed in minutes to allow them to do different tasks. Programming robots used to be a job for engineers, but now advanced-learning algorithms allow machines to pick up skills directly from workers on the assembly line.
This new breed of flexible robots is driving a robotic resurgence. Sales in the US, Canada and Mexico are increasing as more companies move manufacturing operations closer to US markets. According to the Robotic Industries Association, In the first quarter of 2017, US companies bought a total of 9,773 industrial robots, valued at approximately $516 million. This a 32% increase over the same time in 2016. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) is predicting that the number of industrial robots deployed worldwide will increase to 2.6 million units by 2019.[i]
Key players: co-bot producers
The poster child for this renaissance is Baxter and his younger brother Sawyer. Their developer, Rethink Robotics, has designed the 3-feet tall, two-armed Baxter, and one-armed Sawyer with a computer-screen face, animated eyes, and the capability to automatically adapt to changing environments. It uses a series of cameras, sensors and software to enable it to ‘see’ objects, ‘feel’ forces and ‘understand’ tasks. Baxter is neither particularly fast (although it is continually getting faster) nor particularly accurate (although it is getting more precise with every update).
However, it excels at just about any job that involves picking objects up and putting them down elsewhere while simultaneously adapting to changes in its environment, like a misplaced part or a conveyor belt that suddenly changes speed. Baxter can handle a broad range of tasks ranging from line loading and machine tending, to packaging and material handling.
What’s different in the new era of robotics
The new breed of co-bots boast these game-changing characteristics:
Price: Traditional industrial robots start at around $100,000+. but market-leading co-bots are priced $25,000, the same as an average salary for a US warehouse or production worker.
Working conditions: unlike humans, co-bots can work all day and night for the cost of electricity, don’t get sick, require breaks or need holidays. They also don’t join unions, complain or go on strike.
Safety: their collaborative, adaptive nature means they require no security cages, working seamlessly alongside human coworkers, continuously sensing and adapting to what’s going on in its environment. As soon as it touches something unexpected it stops with a concerned look on its face.
Intelligence: To teach Baxter a new job, for example, a human guides the arms to simulate the desired task through a sequence of motions, records them and watches as they repeat the process automatically. Equipped with sensors and other software to help it see and understand its environment, they apply common sense to their environment. For example, if it drops an object, it ‘knows’ it must get another one before trying to finish the task.
Ease of Use: Simple interfaces make this technology work more like an application than a traditional industrial robot; plug-and-play machines that small manufacturers can use without lengthy training of employees.
Robotics industry leaders
Rethink Robotics is not the only collaborative robotics company in town. Other major players with robots designed to work safely alongside humans include Kuka, ABB, Fanuc and Universal Robots.
Kuka, based in Germany, has two single-armed collaborative robots with multi-joint flexibility and safe torque sensors on every axis that make them well suited for tactile solutions and simple gripper systems.
Japanese company Fanuc has four single-arm collaborative robots equipped with vision and 3D sensors. ABB, the Swedish/Swiss company, has developed YuMi (‘You and Me’), a dual arm collaborative robot like Baxter (minus the screen) and the Danish company Universal Robots has a series of robotic arms with collaborative capabilities.
The ROI of Robots
The importance of collaborative robots and the flexibility they bring is significant. Many companies have embraced off-shoring to chase the lowest possible labour costs, relocating production to countries like China, Bangladesh and now Vietnam. What they’ve since found was that the total cost of the supply chain was far greater than any planned savings. Excessive transportation costs, long lead times and significant quality issues change the economics.
Collaborative robots are creating new possibilities for small- to medium-sized manufacturers that previously assumed robots were outs of their budgets. Their ability to operate at a per-unit cost less than even the cheapest worker in emerging nations makes them a desirable proposition. They neutralize the location issue, enabling manufacturing to be located near the consumer and reduce the transportation and storage needed. Manufacturing locally by machines not only saves on supply chain costs, but also removes the other issues of counterfeiting, IP theft, quality control, long lead times, and cultural and language difficulties.
This is kicking off a reshoring trend, with companies like Adidas and Nike already bringing manufacturing to Europe and the US. Localization of production also means that items can be made in smaller batches, increasing the agility needed to meet the demands of a consumer base that increasingly demands ever shorter lead times. Connected robots are also capable of sharing and re-using programming, which means manufacturers can flexibly set up production in multiple locations and still maintain the quality and consistency of global brands, regardless of the local labour pool. The projected ROI of collaborative robots is therefore measured in months, not years.
Manufacturing’s coming home – but are the jobs?
The tipping point for robots is about to be reached. This process is irreversible as humans simply cannot compete with this level of productivity per dollar. The prices of robotics hardware and software are dropping fast, while their capability increases exponentially. Often only a small upgrade and increase in intelligence is needed to allow an ROI-worthy increase in output.
This new robot revolution has also had a direct impact on nations such as China, where the government has realised that an ageing population and growing wages has impacted its attractiveness as a manufacturing destination. It has taken proactive steps by focusing on becoming the largest producer and purchaser of industrial robots, incentivizing its different regions and companies. In 2015, the government of Guangdong province in south China promised to spend $150 billion equipping factories with industrial robots and creating two new centres dedicated to advanced automation.
Collaborative robots play a pivotal part in the development of the PAL (Personalized, Automated, Local) supply chain. They will enable the personal aspect through allowing companies to produce smaller batches of more customized products on demand, enabling them to design products for more niche markets and sizes. They obviously form part of the automation revolution, and they will help companies to localise production to where the consumers are located.
As collaborative robots grow in sophistication, the cost advantages of making, storing and shipping goods locally and in smaller quantities using smart machines and on-demand manufacturing will become pervasive. They will be cheaper, faster, and far more reliable than humans. They also make far fewer errors, are unlikely to pilfer goods, act inappropriately or put your company’s brand at risk. Add all these factors together and it’s easy to understand why we’re going to be seeing more and more silicon-based employees working alongside our carbon-based colleagues.
 However, he credits his brother, Josef Čapek, as true inventor of the word ‘robot’.