The megatrends are among us, part 1

Technology is redefining what robots CAN do for us. But some big megatrends are redefining what they MUST do for us.

In the early 2000s, Google’s biggest acquisitions were a web search engine, a web logging service (what we call blogging today) and an on-line adverting platform. Last year, their shopping list was topped by all things robots – bodies, arms, wheels, cameras, vision systems and even an artificial intelligence firm.

The explosion of interest in robots is certainly being driven by huge leaps in technology. Robots today can do a lot more than the powerful but limited mechanical dinosaurs that debuted at the start of the last manufacturing era – they are nimbler and have a better sense of their surroundings. One Osaka Japan shopping mall even has robots that sense were they are in the building and give shoppers directions to stores based on their current location.

But technology alone is not driving this ‘robo-mania.’ There is a whole set of overarching mega-trends – economic and social drivers which cut across many sectors and geographies to create a common set of pressure on manufacturers. It is the unique ability of today’s robot technologies to help modern manufacturers adapt to these megatrends that is fueling the growth in robotic automation.

The increasing demand for “knowledge automation” is a powerful megatrend – capturing a manufacturer’s collective expertise and injecting it into all automation processes. As processes becoming increasingly complex, the ability to apply a company’s collective expertise in all processes is critical to maintaining productivity and performance.

This becomes all the more urgent as manufacturers face a shortage of skilled workers. By 2020 in mature economies, there will be a shortage of 17 people for every 100 skilled workers needed. In China this will be 23 people.

Flexible, packaged automation solutions are especially important to small and mid-sized players, who often do not have large engineering teams. In fact, the cost of integrating and engineering a small machine can be as much as 65% of its total cost (vs. 35% for the cost of the components). Robots are often easy to configure and engineer into either existing lines or new ones.

For these smaller manufacturers, this is also imperative to minimize integration risks – a few hours of unplanned downtime is costly for anyone, but for a small manufacturer with unforgiving deadlines and slim margins it can be deadly.

Another trend is the inescapable explosion of big data around us – in our private lives and industry as well. The cost of implementing sensors and other measurement devices is rapidly falling, both the cost of the sensors themselves and from improvements in wireless communications, which saves plants the considerable expense of cabling and connecting production sites.

At the same time, powerful cloud-based applications are making it easier to manage all this data and turn it into meaningful, actionable information. Thus many performance measures that could only be looked at retrospectively a few years ago can now be managed in real time, in some cases even proactively – like predictive maintenance.

Part of this data mega trend is also advancements in software, which have made robot automation much more approachable for the smaller player – easy to configure devices, data libraries that share site assets and other tools make it easy for shop floor workers to configure – and more importantly adapt – robots for changing automation needs. And, powerful new visualization tools help manufacturers understand and optimize their production processes before a single piece of CAPEX hits the shop floor.

In part 2 of this blog, we will continue looking at the megatrends.


Image courtesy of Kai Schreiber via Wikimedia Commons

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About the author

Philip Lewin

I'm one of the many people sharing ABB's passion and great stories for robotics and industrial ingenu-ity. It’s exciting for me to be at the leading edge of a new age for one of the most fundamental things that people do - we make things. At the same time, the awareness has never been greater that economic progress, higher living standards and new ways of making things cannot come at the expense of our environment. I’m proud to contribute to this exciting and important discussion.
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