The Wonder of Robotics – Robots, cobots and futuristic production lines
Automation is changing the way we work and live – here are three different areas where robotics is transforming operations, with amazing results.
Naomi Khoo’s vision of the future of manufacturing sounds like it comes from The Jetsons, but in fact it’s starting to happen right now.
“We’ve introduced a couple of fascinating technologies to the manufacturing industry,” says Khoo, Business Development Manager for B&R, the Machine Automation arm of ABB. “Our intelligent transport technology is revolutionising the machine automation and robotics industry.”
The linear motor systems she’s talking about look, she says, “like a magnetic levitation train, but in the machine world”. In the future she’s describing, “You will see things such as a bottle of water or a wheel of cheese levitating on the production line and moving to wherever they need to go, rather than in a conventional conveyor line.”
These complex automation systems are making manufacturing smarter, and it’s Khoo’s job to bring them ABB’s clients in Australia. “I want to help them to see how such technologies can help them resolve their challenges.”
She helps to visualise this intelligent production line with a reference to the hoverboard in Back to the Future. “The products themselves are not magnetised,” she explains, “They are just moving in a very smooth and fast manner over the production lines.”
The innovations she’s talking about are two different drive systems, ACOPOStrak intelligent transport system and the ACOPOS6D, which uses electromagnetic motor segments to enable individual products to move, rotate and tilt, offering precise control. Among the benefits of both systems is a reduced footprint and the flexibility to enable small-batch production and customisation.
There are systems installed in Australia already, but the manufacturers are wisely keeping their technological leap forward hush-hush as it’s giving them such a competitive advantage. “With this system, they can really adapt to the different fluctuations in demand,” explains Khoo. “One day they could be filling up a water bottle and the next day they could be producing hand sanitiser. It gives them the flexibility to do a variety of products on the same line, and it also improves throughput.”
One of the other things that excites Khoo about these advances in manufacturing is that it will not only help factories become more flexible and efficient, but in doing so it will be a boon for sustainability. As we buy more and more online, she explains, personalisation is also on the rise.
“These technologies will enable manufacturers to make more personalised products,” she says. “For example, you can order beer not with your own label on it but the kind of lid you want. It’s happening a lot in Europe already. This customisation means things are being made to order, rather than for stock, so it’s much more sustainable.”
The potential for this flexible, automated manufacturing for Australia really excites Khoo, who’s always been fascinated by how things work.
“Since I was really young, I’ve always wanted to understand how things work – even today I still like pulling things apart,” she says. Growing up in Malaysia, with a strong culture to fix things rather than replace them, she says when the technician came to their home to fix something, “I was the kid who hung around watching them! I learned quite a bit from observing, then soon I was able to be the one helping my dad to fix things, working things out together.”
She hopes that more manufacturing will return to Australia. “I think COVID has helped us see the importance of having local manufacturing, and I’m happy to be working with an innovative company that is so well-positioned to provide solutions for this industry,” she says. “I am optimistic – we’re veering in the right direction!”
She takes her hopes one step further. “I’d like to see a factory where robots are making robots in Australia,” she says. “That will be a fascinating factory!”
The new education: every industry is ripe for robotics
Gail Bray, Director of Wyndham Tech School, Innovation and Technology at Victoria University (VU), says humans will work collaboratively and creatively with robots and automation in every industry — retail, health, finance, hospitality, agriculture, construction — as the workplaces of the future rapidly evolve.
The digital leader who began her career working with telecommunications, manufacturing and energy corporations talks about the era of floppy disks and today’s brick-laying robots (Perth company FastBrick Robotics’ Hadrian X robot can construct the shell of a three-bedroom house in around 24 hours) as part of her continuum of employment-market experience. The pace of technological change and the fact that around the turn of this century she was constantly providing employees and colleagues with on-the-job upskilling “by default ”, she says, led her to complete a Masters Degree in Training and Education at VU in 2012.
Since then Bray has dedicated her skills to retooling the vision for how Australian schools, TAFEs and universities provide education in technology. She says it must be delivered, not in isolation, but as part of every single subject or sector. “Education finds it really challenging to keep up with technology, cybersecurity, automation and robotics,” she says, citing the cost of equipment, and the availability of future-focused educators as the most significant challenges. Engaging people, whether they’re high school students or workers who want to reskill, in the wonders of robotics is key she says: “Lecture-type education has to be replaced with practical application.”
The new Wyndham Tech School (WTS), is one outcome of this award-winning educator’s vision to connect school communities — students, teachers and families — with industry partners and equipment to solve problems. Collaborative robots such as ABB’s YuMi and the articulated dual-arm ABB IRB introduce students to the potential of mechanised help in the WTS Factory of the Future. They learn to instruct robots using intuitive “block” programming — instead of writing reams of code line by line, they stack it in blocks of preprogrammed actions — and quickly apply learned skills to real-world challenges.
For Wyndham’s agricultural producers, these might include automating repetitive tasks such as picking and packing kale and cauliflower for sale, or lifting and shifting volumes of the packed goods to bulk-packaging and dispatch bays.
Robotic recognition of ripeness and dexterity for harvesting will have to surge to a new level to be able to solve the current shortage of seasonal workers needed to literally pick produce from fields and orchards, to recognise and handle ripe peaches or broccolini, but Bray says the foundations for these capabilities are already being laid.
In her new integrated-skills blueprint given form at WTS, students can design robot effectors (attachments than can perform different tasks), rapidly produce prototypes using 3D printers in the Maker Space; virtually test their application in the Digital Twin Command Centre — a facility that lets industry partners assess and adjust processes before investing; and trial robot function in the Factory of the Future.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re learning at school, what vocation you go into, ultimately you will be working with these technologies, and making them part of the core curriculum is what excites me,” she says.
At high school in Melbourne, Emma Bebe was already mad for maths and physics and planning to study engineering at university when a teacher came to her with a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. That was the day she found her future focus.
“It was awesome – it showed me how I could apply programming and knowledge and I just loved the robot, too” says Bebe, Operations and Sales Support Team Leader and a specialist with the Robotics Service and Robotics and Discrete Automation group at ABB Australia. “I was hooked – and we started a robotics club at school.”
For her degree, she chose Swinburne University of Technology, then one of only three engineering degrees in Victoria offering robotics as a major, because it was very hands-on. “We did projects every year and work placement,” she says. “And of course I had a work placement at ABB!”
Today Bebe works with ABB customers on robot training, maintenance and general support, and is happily in her element with the growing range from the company’s robotics offerings. The latest is a brand new range of cobots – collaborative robots – launched at ABB’s headquarters in Zurich at the end of February 2021.
“When we launched the YuMi cobot in 2015, it was the first time we had a robot that didn’t have to be locked into a cage,” she explains. “That’s invaluable for factories, because you don’t need nearly as much for space – and real estate is expensive.”
They need to be deployed for the right tasks, for example they’re not designed to pick up very heavy objects, adds Bebe. “Cobots are built so they cannot exert enough force to hurt somebody,” she says. “The YuMi robot looks great and has been a wonderful flagship.”
The other “cool feature” of cobots is how they can be programmed. Traditionally, robots are programmed either from behind a laptop, or via a ‘teach pendant’, a programming box plugged into the robot.
Collaborative robots have an option for ‘lead-through programming’. “You just grab the arm, move it to where you want, save that position, then move it over here, save that position, and so on, in a specific order,” says Bebe. “At the end, you save the whole routine and when you press play, it repeats that whole pattern again.”
This is where the collaboration comes in, a combination of a human’s unique ability to adapt to change and a robot’s endurance for repetitive tasks, making trained cobots the perfect partners to revolutionise assembly-line production, for example.
Bebe is no less impressed by how more traditional robots can transform all sorts of processes. “Yes, ABB is pushing cutting-edge technology, but a lot of it is in the application,” she says. “It’s the element of people taking what we’re selling and doing something special with it. For example, we’re seeing a lot more automation in the logistics space, in warehouses, and five years ago no one was really talking about that in Australia.”
She describes a modern Australian warehouse with “a combination of all different types of automation, from forklifts to guided vehicles to automatic conveyors running everywhere, so your products come out to the robot pretty much automatically, without much human intervention at all.” Only a few years ago, local warehouses “were a lot more labour driven,” she says, with people on forklifts manually picking stock.
Bebe stresses that automation is much more about reducing labour costs. “Yes, you do get cost savings by automating, but there’s a lot more to it,” she says. “For example, the quality improvements that you get from automation, and the reduced OH&S issues from people doing repetitive jobs that they shouldn’t be doing, that are bad for their postures or safety issues or whatever it might be. There are still plenty of people working on the sites, but they’re in maintenance or operations roles rather than picking and packing products. The jobs are more interesting.”
With robotics such a growth area in Australia, high school kids now involved with RoboCup Junior will have even more avenues of tertiary study and job opportunities. Bebe joined RoboCup Junior when she and her schoolmates started that robotics club, and she’s still an active member of the executive committee. “We want to foster AI and robotics research and help educate and engage primary and secondary school children in robotics,” says Bebe. They are aiming high: “The ultimate goal of RoboCup is that by the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall play and win a soccer game against the human world champions.”