In robotics, ‘going small’ is becoming big.

For decades, robots were synonymous with large-scale automation in automotive factories around the world.

But in the last few years, the robotics industry has been moving towards an ability to handle smaller and lighter items with greater precision. Last year, the electronics industry accounted for almost as many shipments of robots as the automotive industry, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

The electronics sector now accounts for as much as 90 percent of the sales of new, more precise robots that can assemble small parts. We expect this trend to continue and even accelerate in the future. That’s why ABB has previewed a number of new collaborative automation solutions at this year’s iREX in Tokyo, one of the world’s most important robotic automaton industry events.

One of these previews was a new single arm member of ABB’s family of YuMi collaborative robots, which can tirelessly work with needle-threading precision the entire day. This is critical for tasks such as manufacturing mobile phones, which has many small parts assembly, machine tending and inspection applications.  In the factory of the future, it will be more efficient for robots to do this work than was ever possible in the conventional factories of the past. The new robots are having the long-term effect of channeling people into more creative and fulfilling activities, rather than having delicate, dull and repetitive tasks.

One particularly promising growth area for collaborative robots is in small and medium sized business, who can benefit from robot’s scalability and flexibility but lack in-house robotics expertise. Robots made for them need to be easily programmable. For example, ABB’s YuMi family of robots can be intuitively programmed by people with no special training or experience – the robot’s movements can be easily taught by a person moving its arms into the correct position by hand rather than programming every point of motion with software.

The second collaborative robot ABB previewed was a higher payload single arm robot, the IRB 14100, which also features an innovative lead through programming solution. Even users without special training can program the robot by simply maneuvering the robot’s arm into the required positions by guiding the robot’s ‘wrist.’ Safety is achieved with ABB’s SafeMove2 software, which allows people to share space with the IRB 14100 for intermittent tasks such as loading or unloading parts.

iREX visitors learn how to program ABB’s IRB 14100 collaborative robot simply by guiding its wrist.

There is also an increasing need for more flexible automation in future factories, as customers demand more individualized products. The single arm YuMi is light enough to be easily redeployed around a factory, and can be mounted on tables, floors, walls or even from the ceiling. This makes it easy for manufacturers to flexibly add collaborative applications to existing lines while keeping workers inherently safe.

In addition to unveiling new solutions at iREX, ABB also recently shared a preview of its new IRB 1100 robot at the 2017 China International Industrial Fair (CIIF) in Shanghai. The IRB is tailored for the electronic industry and is ABB’s smallest and most lightweight robot yet, also making it easy to fit into production.

Another important benefit of collaborative robots is their ability to help offset shortages of skilled labor. Japan, the home of iREX, has nearly one worker in five within a decade of retirement. Many countries face similar demographic time bombs and there is little relief on the pipeline, as today’s knowledge-based workers want rewarding mental challenges, not physical challenges or dull, repetitive tasks.

The problem is especially acute in industries like consumer electronics, where it is difficult to scale production with short notice to respond to unexpected trends – imagine if a camera maker could not meet sudden demand for the latest ‘must have’ when a trend was hot?

Now imagine the potential of a collaborative robot that could be used in the morning to feed delicate parts into a CNC machine for faster cycle times, and then redeployed for an afternoon shift of inspecting finished products – all by a worker with no specialized training! This is ABB’s vision for the factory of the future, and it’s what we previewed this past week at iREX – a smaller robot with very big potential.

A collaborative collaboration: ABB’s dual arm YuMi robot and Kawasaki’s dual arm duAro SCARA robots worked together at iREX to assemble delicate lights on a circuit board. The two companies jointly announced a new collaborative robot automation cooperation at iREX, the first of its kind in the world.

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