Rise of the Automatons: ABB and the Evolution of Robotics

Robotics Industry in Context: Capgemini Consulting spoke to Head of ABB Robotics to understand more about robotics, their evolution and impact on operations

I was recently invited by Capgemini to participate in a interview to answer some interesting questions regarding industrial robotics. The full article is scheduled to appear in the No.5 January 2014 edition of their Digital Transformation Review.  Here is a “sneak preview” of my answers on topics ranging from market drivers and business benefits, to reshoring and collaborative robots.

Q. How has the robotics industry performed in the last few years?

A. For many years prior to the global financial crisis, the robotics market was fairly small at roughly 100,000 units. The market was driven primarily by the automotive industry and growth was relatively flat. The industry was badly affected during the crisis. Sales fell by nearly, 30-40% and the market declined to about 67,000 units. Since the crisis, however, the robotics market has grown strongly. During 2010 and 2011, the market recovered to above pre-crisis levels. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the global robotics market stood at close to 160,000 units in 2012. I expect the market to continue to grow strongly going forward.

Q. What is driving this dramatic growth in the robotics market?

A. Companies need to increase productivity and efficiency, both in mature as well as developing markets. Western countries are looking at automation as a way to compete more effectively against low-cost manufacturing countries as well. There are two reasons for this – rising labor costs and high labor turnover rates. Labor costs in China are rising at 10-15% a year. As a result, the traditional cost advantage that China enjoyed compared to the western world is shrinking. And this is true for other emerging markets as well. These countries are looking at robotics and automation to maintain their competitiveness. China, in fact, is the most rapidly growing market for robots in the world. Between 2005 and 2012, sales of industrial robots in China have grown by about 25% per year on average. High labor turnover rates are also contributing to the increasing use of automation in emerging economies . The consumer electronics and food and beverage industries, in particular, struggle to maintain a stable workforce. Certain Chinese factories have to manage employee turnover rates of up to 5% a month. The cost of replacing employees, which includes recruitment and training costs, can be quite high. This has become one of the key drivers of automation.

Q. What are some of the key benefits secured by companies that have deployed robots?

A. The cost and efficiency benefits of using robots can indeed be quite significant. This is more so when companies are running high volume productions. A single robot, for instance, can replace several workers on a production line, which brings down operating costs. At the same time, a robot can work faster and with greater efficiency. Franklin Bronze & Alloy Inc. is a U.S-based producer of ceramic shells that has used robots to dramatically reduce costs and increase efficiency. The use of robots has helped the company cut man-hours from 56 hours a day to 32, while increasing daily production from 140 to 200 parts. The other key benefit of using robots is higher product quality. A robotized solution can reduce rework, scrap rates and material usage, while delivering higher and more consistent quality levels. In a car paint job, for instance, achieving uniform thickness through manual painting is difficult due to the human tendency to overspray. A manual paint job for a car usually utilizes 20-30% more paint compared to robotized painting. This means lower quality levels and substantially higher costs. Another benefit of investing in robots is increased worker safety and improved working conditions. Robots can perform tasks involving hot, dusty or hazardous conditions that would be difficult and dangerous for humans. Link to 10 good reasons to invest in robotics ebook

Q. What are some of the challenges in increasing the penetration of robots in the EU or US?

A. There are two challenges that I believe the industry will need to address. The first challenge is to find ways to make robots easier to use. The automotive industry has had a long history of using robots and as a result, it has built a skilled workforce that can program and manage robots. But for industries that are new to automation, programming robots can be a challenge. We need to find ways to make robots easier to use so that they do not require a very highly skilled workforce to operate. Ease of use is going to be crucial to drive penetration. The other issue that will need to be addressed is that of safety. The industry is looking at ways to make robots work more closely with human beings, so that they can actually collaborate. Today there are very strict safety rules for robot operations and robots are required to be caged in. But if we want to have a robot working alongside human beings on a production line, we will need to make robots that are safer to work with.

Q. Does the increasing use of automation pose a serious skills issue for companies? Do you see a skills gap becoming a hurdle for manufacturers?

A. I do see this as a challenge for nonautomotive industries, like the food and beverage and electronics industries. Unlike the automotive industry, these industries do not have in-house expertise in programming and handling robots. I think the solution would be for the robotics industry to develop robots that are easier to use, as I mentioned earlier, because I think in the future we will increasingly serve new customer segments with different skill levels and needs compared to the automotive industry.

Addition note from Per Vegard: Read my blog: Managers of the Future

Q. Do you think that robots can help the US and Europe bring manufacturing production back onshore?

A. Yes I do think that is a possibility. A few years back the focus was on shifting manufacturing to locations that offered the lowest production costs. But today, we see growing concern about landed costs and the impact of import duties. We also see a growing need for delivering products at the same time across geographies. These factors are driving a shift in mindset among companies toward moving production back onshore. Some leading electronics companies have openly announced that they have already “reshored” some manufacturing work. And we are seeing this trend not only in customized production but also in mass production.

Q. What are your thoughts on the impact of automation on employment? Do you agree with arguments that say that increasing automation has led to a jobless growth?

A. No, I do not agree. In fact, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) published a report last year that shows that countries that invested heavily in automation between 2000 and 2011 actually saw a drop in unemployment. The number of jobs that have been created is far greater than the numbers lost due to automation in manufacturing. This is because companies that have invested in automation are producing more and expanding and entering new markets. As a result, they have had to employ more people in new downstream functions like sales and distribution. The IFR estimates that 300,000 to 500,000 downstream jobs have been created due to the use of robots during 2008-2011.

Additional note from Per Vegard: Read my blog: Robots and jobs: A nuanced issue

Q. There has been a lot of talk around collaborative robots. What is ABB doing around that and what do you think is their future?

A. ABB has developed a Dual Arm Concept Robot (DACR) that is designed to work on a production line in the electronics industry, alongside human co-workers. This DACR is designed in such a way that it is intrinsically safe which means it cannot hurt a co-worker. It uses force-sensors to detect changes in the force applied to it. When it comes in contact with a human being, it safely stops. It has padded arms which ensure that it is completely safe. ABB’s DACR is also designed to increase the flexibility and agility of manufacturing systems. Since it is compact, portable and designed to take the same working space as a human, it can easily be interchanged with a human co-worker. The DACR can be easily trained on a process and placed on a production line in place of human workers. This allows a manufacturer to adapt quickly to changes in production schedules. It can also be dedicated to tasks where human workers may be required to work in confined spaces. I do think that the use of such collaborative robots will grow significantly in the future. But safety will be vital for collaborative robot operation since the robots will need to work in close contact with humans. Watch the Dual Arm Concept Robot working in collaboration with a human colleague at IREX 2014 [YouTube]

Q. What are your views on the evolution of connected robots?

Q. I believe the future of robotics is closely tied to two aspects of connectivity that the entire industry is focusing on. The first relates to the application of connectivity to remotely monitor robots. For instance, the ABB Remote Service solution is being used to monitor robots remotely in real time, using biosensors. [Link to case study] The solution helps to proactively identify potential issues so that they do not disrupt normal manufacturing operations. For instance, it helps us detect if a robot is in need of service or an upgrade. The customer can then choose to have the issue resolved over the phone or by having a technician visit the production plant. This helps us better support our customers in running trouble free manufacturing with no loss of production time.

The other aspect of connectivity relates to telerobotics that opens up several new applications for robots. Remotely controlled or telecontrolled robots can be used to perform complex or dangerous functions that would ordinarily be performed by humans. For instance, working on an oil platform requires a lot of training and also involves safety hazards . Remotely operated robots equipped with vision technology can be made to perform actions such as the handling of components which would otherwise require a human worker to be present on the platform. Telecontrolled robots could also be used to assist surgeons in performing complex surgical procedures. Other examples of telecontrolled robots include unmanned helicopters and submarines. Unmanned helicopters are being used for aerial filming while unmanned submarines are being used to close oil and gas leakages. There are several such ways in which connectivity can extend the application of robots.

Q. What do you see as the future of consumer or service robots? Is this an area where we might see a lot of traction in the next 5 to 10 years?

A. The market for consumer or service robots has not taken off in the way it was expected to. So far, we have seen only limited applications for consumer robots, mainly in the form of lawn cutters and vacuum cleaners. The main applications for service robots are in medicine and surgery. We are also seeing the application of robots in pharmaceutical companies where robots are used to move or blend samples in labs. But this is still a small market. I am not too optimistic about the consumer or service robots market taking off in the short term.

Q. In your view, what does the robot of the future look like?

I think we will increasingly see robots that can program themselves. At present, we have robots that need to be trained and programmed. We will see sensor technologies, such as vision and force-sensing, playing a bigger role in helping robots do this. We will also see robots evolve to meet the needs of non-automotive industries. Robots today are built to be highly accurate. But not all industries and applications require high levels of accuracy. For instance, a bakery may not require 0.02 mm accuracy every time a piece of bread needs to be moved into an oven. Today’s robots are also relatively heavy. But as new applications of robots emerge in new industry segments, we will need robots made of lighter materials. Accuracy, stiffness, weight, speed and cost – these are all features that will evolve as new applications of robots emerge.

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About the author

Per Vegard Nerseth

As the Head of the Robotics Business Unit at ABB, Per Vegard is deep into the world of automation. Since he joined ABB in 2000, he has seen the robotics industry change quite dramatically—from some very high points to low points during tough economic times and then back again, his experience straddles it all.
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