Robots – our tireless helpers

They boldly go where no-one has gone before, explore places too dangerous or contaminated for humans, and their inexhaustible productivity drives our economies.

At Audi, 3D scanners create a virtual clone of a model car. Photo: Audi

At Audi, 3D scanners create a virtual clone of a model car. Photo: Audi

It would be hard to imagine industry without them. Their advantages are clear; unlike us humans, they are able to work around the clock without any break, and are immune to tiredness. In addition, the initial investment costs involved are tumbling, making them an affordable option for small and medium-sized businesses.

1.7 Million industrial robots to automate factories by 2020

Even today, industrial robots are taking over many tasks, executing them reliably and with consistent quality. This is set to continue, as forecast by the ­International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in the World Robotics Report 2017. By 2020, 1.7 million new industrial robots are set to be installed in factories around the globe.

A key driver of this development is China. Since 2016, China has possessed the highest number of active industrial robots. With a 2016 share of 30 percent of the entire market offering, Chinese ­factories command almost as many robots as Europe and America together. In 2020, there will be 950,300 units in operation there, compared to 611,700 in Europe.

Even in other countries, industrial robots are taking on a decisive role when it comes to efficiency and market competitiveness. “It’s just no longer possible without industrial robots,” explains Gudrun Litzenberger, General Secretary of the IFR. This is the current state of affairs, and is nowhere more pronounced than in the electronics and automotive industries. “No car rolls off the production line any more without having been assembled by a robot in some way,” continues Litzenberger. “The last three years have seen strong overall development. The biggest driver of growth was China, though Korea, Vietnam and India were hot on its heels. Over the last seven years, the USA has gained a lot of ground, especially in the automotive industry. This ended up being the industry’s savior.”

Teamwork between humans and machines, such as Kuka's industrial robot here, will be characterized by digital learning in future. Photo: Claus Brechenmacher & Reiner Baumann

Teamwork between humans and machines, such as Kuka’s industrial robot here, will be characterized by digital learning in future. Photo: Claus Brechenmacher & Reiner Baumann

Growth drivers and economy boosters

In the smart factories of the future, automation will be a necessity to assert oneself as a manufacturing global player. The key to success will be producing with higher flexibly, at higher speeds, while addressing the individual needs of each customer more effectively and in a targeted manner.

These are not just topics for large multinationals. “For a long time, small and medium enterprises have hardly used this technology. That has now changed. More and more of them are adopting industrial robots in their operations,” explains IFR President Joe Gemma. Automation is thereby also becoming a key factor for smaller businesses wanting to stay competitive. “With the assistance of artificial intelligence, which is currently emerging, the productivity of many a manufacturer will be maximized.”

That robots increase production and are indispensable assistants has been known for decades. The first robot in the automotive industry went live back in the 1960s. The Unitmate from Unimation was able to remove and separate hot injection-molded parts. Around 1980, the car industry automated its factories on a grand scale to cater for accelerating business cycles. While industrial robots have constantly become more powerful and more complex, the robotics sector is far from reaching the limit of its development potential. “We are currently dealing with questions such as how machines can work more efficiently, and how they can learn,” explains Steven Wyatt, IFR Executive Board Member.

Robots such as this one built by Yaskawa are long-established in metal processing. But they are taking on more and more new tasks. Photo: Yaskawa

Robots such as this one built by Yaskawa are long-established in metal processing. But they are taking on more and more new tasks. Photo: Yaskawa

Learning in this context describes a robot exhibiting the ability to transfer its capabilities, applying and adapting its existing, programmed knowledge situationally. This becomes possible when the robot is able to reprogram itself – if necessary – and adapt to changing production methods. If this is successfully achieved, the industry will be able to save money that is nowadays spent on replacing and manually reprogramming the machines.

Voice control in the starting gates

Another future topic will be the ­matter of voice control. “As the Siri or voice-­controlled Alexa systems demonstrate, there is big demand in this area,” says Wyatt. It could be said that the topic is in the starting gates. “How it will actually develop will only reveal itself in the coming years. On a technical level, voice control of industrial robots is possible, but industry standards must be developed and implemented to be able to make such technology a reality in our factories.” Gemma also emphasizes: “The matter of safety plays a hugely important role. It is imperative that the usage of voice control cannot lead to any misunderstandings.”

While the operation at the press of a button is very easy, many prerequisites must be fulfilled for voice control to be a success. Language differs from country to country, as do volume of speech, methods of pronunciation and intonation. Language recognition systems used to control industrial robots – and thereby connected with them – must be capable of recognizing commands even through linguistic deviations.

Photos: Ulrich Schepp

Photos: Ulrich Schepp

Artificial intelligence – a topic that will become ever more important in the future. And a heavily controversial one at that. Does artificial intelligence actually threaten humanity? The idea, perpetuated in sci-fi films, that robots will one day rise up and take control of humanity is fantastical. Robots’ ability to react is dependent on the commands of their human operators. But what about the world of work? A 2013 Oxford study caused uproar when it suggested that 47 percent of all jobs could be lost to robots within the next 20 years. The focus of the study was the US labor market. In a study presented in summer 2016 and carried out by the Center for European Economic Research (ZEW), the risk of automation to jobs in 21 OECD countries was investigated. The conclusion was that over the next 20 years, no more than nine percent of jobs would be threatened. Robots: When implemented intelligently, they can offer huge potential, and businesses can benefit.

 

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