Meeting big challenges in robotics

At iREX 2013, a panel of executives from the robotics industry tackles important questions about the future of industrial robotics.

In a gathering of some of the most influential people in the worlds of robotics, electronics and automotive technologies, the International Robot Exhibition (iREX) in Tokyo, Japan played host to Robot Summit 2013, a forum looking at the frontiers of industrial robotics. With executives from most of the world’s major robotics manufacturers–including our own Head of ABB Robotics, Per Vegard Nerseth–addressing the questions and needs of two executives from the electronics and automotive industries, it was truly a rare event.

Although the automotive industry is well-known for pioneering the use of robotics in manufacturing for more than 40 years now, the electronics assembly industry has really only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible in using robots to automate the assembly of smartphones, computers, and other mobile devices.

Dr. Chia P. Day, Senior Vice President of Foxconn Technology Group–a manufacturing powerhouse that is responsible for assembling some of the world’s most iconic electronic gadgets and smartphones–was on hand to represent the electronics assembly industry. “Foxconn employs more than a million people across 90 locations worldwide,” he said during an opening presentation. “Although those are large numbers, what’s important to understand is that it represents an incredible management challenge.”

In his view, taking care of employees can only be accomplished by getting them out of harm’s way and replacing some of the more dirty, dangerous and dull tasks with robotics. In addition, the sheer magnitude of the logistics for managing such a large production of employees takes up a significant portion of the company’s resources, making it hard to plan for growth and organize employee time. With robotics, neither of these are issues.

According to Dr. Day, any robotic solution for the assembly of small parts in the electronics industry will require four major features: easy programming, low implementation cost, fast deployment, and incredible flexibility. He stressed that very little system engineering will be acceptable to support fast deployment and that to bring down costs his industry may not be that interested in the traditional levels of robustness that current industrial robots are well-known for providing.

“Our product cycles are much shorter than those in the automotive industry–and they are getting shorter all the time,” said Day during a Q&A session with the panel. “What ever robotic solution is delivered for our industry, it will have to be able to be re-purposed every few months. Small parts assembly automation is a very important area that all manufacturers of robotics have been chasing for the past 40 years and what we think the future will be may not be the same as what it turns out to be.”

Robotics manufacturers certainly have been investing R&D dollars into finding solutions for the electronics industry, and at ABB we have been developing and releasing new technologies at a blistering pace.

“We have been quite active in the area and already supply the electronics industry with many robotics solutions,” said ABB’s Nerseth during the forum. “However, we clearly understand that there are very different requirements as we move into small parts assembly processes. In particular, the issues we see are the need for reconfigurable systems with integrated sensor technologies and integrated material handling–just to name a few.”

“What’s most important to understand for this industry is that the robot itself is not the core or the only part of the solution. Things such as grippers, sensors, vision systems, parts feeders and software are at least as important–if not more important. At ABB’s booth here at iREX we are showing a real-world solution with our Dual Arm Concept robot doing collaborative human-robot manufacturing. The cell on display has been assembling eStop switches at one of our ABB factories for many weeks now.”

Although the ABB Dual Arm Concept robot is a prototype, it previews a forthcoming product from ABB meant to directly address the needs brought up by Dr. Day. “This type of robot is meant to be able to be dropped in and configured very quickly to do any assembly job handed to it,” says Nerseth. “Not only that, it is designed to work right next to humans in a safe way. The ultimate goal is to create a system in which all the integrated parts allow for programming by teaching rather than coding.”

Watch the Dual Arm Concept robot in action at iREX 2013 below:

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About the author

Anne Waltenberger

I joined ABB Robotics Marketing Communications team in 2005 and have become passionate about both Robotics and Communications. I think I have the best job in the world. Being the Global Communications Manager for the most exciting product ABB has to offer and working with so many talented and skilled people from all over the world is a true pleasure. I have a degree in Linguistics, Psychology and Literature and benefit from them when trying to explain why robots can help to make this a better world.
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