If there is one core trend in industrial robotics in 2022, it is a generally steady increase in demand. Added to that is the arousal of interest from industrial sectors outside of manufacturing, the traditional mainstay of robotics research and development.
Among the catalysts for this interest is the coming together of advanced robotic hardware and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, such as machine learning and computer vision. Now, machine learning experts can uncage automated equipment and set it to a multitude of tasks across diverse industrial settings. Just as importantly, industrial robots enable functionality that minimizes danger to humans, so people and machines can safely work together on tasks that benefit from a combination of manual and mechanical processes.
Here is a brief analysis of underlying developments and driving forces behind industrial robotics.
What is industrial robotics?
Industrial robotics is a technology that automates industrial processes with the help of mechanical devices. Industrial robots can automatically perform various manufacturing tasks like parts assembly, painting, visual inspection and others.
The factors affecting the industrial robotics growth
Let’s take a look at what’s behind the growth in the use of industrial robots. Why have they become pervasive in an expanding range of verticals, and what’s stimulating expert predictions such as that by Mordor Intelligence, stating that by 2024 the industrial robotics market will be worth some $40 billion?
The drivers of robotics adoption can be split effectively into two categories—those arising from the industrial environment and its evolution and those due to the technology itself.
The external forces: industry issues and influences
Many industries are feeling the effects of skilled labor shortages. At the same time, companies are reluctant to invest heavily in training and developing unskilled employees for fear of losing them afterward through defection to competitors. With no end in sight to the workforce shortfall, the appeal of robots as an efficient supplement, and even replacement, for human labor is continuing to grow.
Efficiency and safety
Efficiency may be one of the most compelling arguments for companies substituting human labor with robots, as the latter do not need to sleep, eat, or take breaks. They can perform repetitive tasks with no variation in work quality, and don't get sick, bored or distracted.
Then there is the safety element. Many industrial applications require the use of stacking, lifting, and cutting equipment. These types of tasks present some degree of risk to human operators, but not for robots.
The COVID-19 curveball
Perhaps one of the most influential forces acting on the rise of industrial robotics currently is the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Never before have human fragility and the imperviousness of the machine been so visibly compared and universally highlighted.
It's possible that social distancing will become the norm for the foreseeable future, as will the general undesirability of having people working together at close quarters. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the health crisis has spurred more industrial enterprises to look into the possibility of replacing some manual processes with those performed by intelligent automated machinery.
The internal forces: increased practicality of industrial robotics
In a nutshell, enterprises are looking to technology for improvements in flexibility, safety, output, quality, and naturally, cost reduction. Static, caged-in robots have been helping to deliver these benefits for some time in specific sectors, such as the automotive industry.
However, as automation converges with computer vision and machine learning, the advancing capabilities of industrial robotics and human-machine interfaces are bringing the technology to the attention of many other industries.
When technology experts, such as robotics and machine learning consultants, work hand in hand to enhance robots’ abilities, the results can be astounding. This amalgamation of cutting-edge technologies has begun to transform industrial robots from operational fixtures to something more like an electronic workforce. They are gaining the capability to navigate within their environment and execute tasks in cooperation with humans.
Seeing and sensing
The ability to see in 3D enables robots to distinguish visually between an item and its background, and machine-learning algorithms allow them to recognize and identify complex shapes. Hardware and programming advances are facilitating the creation of more versatile mobile skeletons and sensor-equipped tooling that can safely handle delicate and fragile items, such as electronics.
These developments are responsible for the broadening appeal of robotics in industries not traditionally considered suitable for their use—think life sciences and consumer goods, for example.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence are also making robots able to cooperate safely and work alongside humans, a shift that has led to the adoption of the term collaborative robots (cobots).
While these downsized multitaskers of the automated world are still in their infancy, they are stimulating interest both within corporations and smaller businesses. As they continue to become more affordable, their versatility will persuade many more SMEs to take the idea of industrial robotics implementation seriously.
Doing more, for less
The cost of robotics is generally falling, and alternative business models like robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) make industrial robots accessible even to companies that don’t have substantial capital budgets to exploit. The affordability of the units themselves, along with the fact that programming is becoming more straightforward and hence less costly, is also boosting the appeal of industrial robotics adoption.
Ultimately it comes down to the question of “what can industrial robots do within my enterprise?”
The answer is no longer limited to spot welding and paint spraying. With machine learning and computer vision integrated into robotics software, the door is opening for robots to take on a much broader spectrum of industrial tasks, including:
● Cutting and shaping
● Inspection and sorting
● Palletization and primary packaging
● Secondary packaging
● Warehouse order picking
So, we see this growth in capability along with the untethering of robots and their improved suitability for working safely alongside people, combined with the external drivers mentioned earlier. In concert, they are finally bringing about a shift that will soon see robots, especially cobots, a commonplace sight in factories, warehouses, and similar industrial environs around the world.
A trend toward industrial resilience?
The convergence of AI, machine learning and computer vision in manufacturing and other sectors is changing the game in industrial robotics, and the prognosis is that adoption will grow exponentially between now and 2025. A 2019 study by Boston Consulting Group found that 86% of companies, across all sectors, plan to integrate advanced robotics into their operations within the next five years.
The world overcoming the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is unlikely to change the minds of companies among that number, potentially accelerating adoption rates. After all, the world has witnessed first-hand how a natural event can cripple industries reliant on people. Meanwhile, industrial robotics is demonstrating that such catastrophes no longer need to be inevitable.
It will be interesting to see which way future trends will swing. As the world settles down into a new normal, will it be one in which enterprises like yours turn to robots for industrial resilience and robustness?