Lockdown to Recovery: The benefits of Incorporating Robotics into Manufacturing
The manufacturing industry’s landscape will be significantly different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses will need to consider embracing robotics within their production processes and through collaboration with ASTUTE 2020, we can support you to implement change and provide solutions to exploit new opportunities. Automation, robotics and humans both have a place in manufacturing and are critical to the industry’s recovery and future success. In this article, we discuss how and where robotics is used within manufacturing and the benefit automation can have on manufacturing as highlighted during the current COVID-pandemic.
How is Robotics Used in Manufacturing?
Robotics has been an integral part of industrial practices for decades and is widely used across the manufacturing sector to automate tasks that would otherwise be done manually. The introduction of robotics systems to a manufacturing process often increases its efficiency and frees up employees to carry out other tasks, improving productivity across several facets.
Traditionally, robots have been used for the automation of tasks that are extremely repetitive, difficult or unergonomic, or present a significant risk to employees. However, new generations of easily programmable robots, along with smart sensor integration, and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are facilitating the transition to Industry 4.0. and the creation of smart factories, paving the way for ubiquitous automation across a wider range of industries than before.
Where are Robotics Used in Manufacturing?
Robotics systems are commonly used for tasks as wide-ranging as welding, machine tending, spraying, pick-and-place operations, cutting, gluing, inspection, assembly, materials handling, and drilling, with robotic manipulators being the most common architecture for general purpose automation due to their relative simplicity and flexibility.
However, as technology advances the list of tasks which can be automated is increasingly growing, and how automation can be implemented also broadens to satisfy a larger range of practical considerations.
Where more traditional robotics systems may come with extensive safety requirements which need to be met to be implemented in a workplace safely that often involves costly and encroaching infrastructure to provide separation from employees during operation, newer generations of collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ are designed to circumvent some of these problems as they can work safely in proximity to humans, reducing their infrastructural footprint and associated costs.
This provides greater opportunities for human collaborative manufacturing processes and semi-automation, as well as alternative implementation and sequencing methods.
For instance, tasks that may be difficult to fully automate for technical or economic reasons may be semi-automated so that certain segments are fulfilled by a cobot whilst others are completed by humans. This encourages incremental efficiency savings while balancing relevant factors and leaves room for production lines to flexibly evolve as conditions allow.
Why are Robots Important in Manufacturing?
Despite perhaps having a high initial cost, automating manufacturing processes with robots brings forth several advantages to make production processes more efficient and cost-effective over time.
Robots are generally much faster than human workers and can be programmed to work constantly without breaks and are thus capable of delivering higher throughput than a manual process. Manufacturing robots also operate within sub-mm accuracy and precision which affords a high-quality and consistent throughput with fewer mistakes than might normally accrue during the manual process because of human error.
Modern robots in particular also encourage flexibility and reconfigurability within production lines due to their small infrastructural requirement and easy programmability. This is particularly useful as Industry 4.0 moves towards greater product customisation requirements. Crucially, the introduction of automated processes should reduce the workload of employees currently involved in a particular production process and free up their capacity for redeployment in other roles and production processes, up-skilling a company’s workforce.
How Can Robotics Systems be Deployed Remotely?
The disruption to normal working practices brought about by COVID-19 highlights the need for a transition to autonomised production processes with diminished requirements for staff’s physical presence.
For more complex production processes, this transition is being facilitated by advancements in human-robot / human-computer interaction technology and artificial intelligence algorithms.
Intuitive methods of real-time remote monitoring and interaction of automated production environments can be achieved via technologies such as digital twinning and virtual reality (VR) to create virtual replicas of real production environments by monitoring their physical parameters to improve remote interaction and data collection capabilities and bolster decision making.
Meanwhile, teleoperation can be used as a means of a person directly controlling robots in real-time via the use of various control and feedback mechanisms.
Sensors such as mono and stereoscopic cameras, ultrasonic/infrared, and haptic feedback mechanisms have been employed to provide intuitive real-time control and feedback of a robotics system to a human user.
Teleoperation is useful for tasks that are difficult to automate, require expert knowledge, or necessitate the use of robotics for practical reasons, but are limited in that human operation is still required to some extent. However, advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms are also making it easier to automate these tasks.
Supervised Learning methods such as Teach by Demonstration take advantage of teleoperated expert demonstrations and other collected sensory data to teach robots how to perform tasks quickly so that they may then perform them autonomously, even with a variation.
Elsewhere Reinforcement Learning methods are being used so that robots teach themselves to perform complex tasks optimally unaided in a short period. This can be achieved remotely within simulated environments, before transferring an optimal control program to physical robots to carry out a process.
How Is ASTUTE 2020’s Expertise Incorporating This Technology into The Welsh Manufacturing Sector?
ASTUTE 2020 is well placed to conduct robotics-focused research with a plethora of industry-focused expertise, extensive laboratory space, and a wide range of robotic, sensory, and computational resources.
ASTUTE 2020 are currently engaged in a range of collaborative R&D projects with businesses across the Welsh manufacturing sector including Ortho Clinical Diagnostics, Carlisle Brake and Friction, and Lyte Ladders and Towers to further their knowledge and develop their automation capabilities.
Lyte Ladders and Towers who manufacture a range of aluminum and glass fiber ladders and access equipment had recently invested in a robotic welding platform to speed up production and enhance quality and productivity. The company was experiencing difficulties in optimising the robotic welding process, resulting in a high number of defective welds with the consequent waste of both material and time. The collaborative research conducted between ASTUTE 2020 and Lyte Ladders highlighted the need to improve Lyte’s production technologies and products through perfecting the weld preparation based on the understanding of the metallurgy of aluminium alloys and advanced automation integrating advanced smart robots and sensors technology.
The breadth of ASTUTE 2020’s expertise and research capabilities across our partnership of Welsh Universities offers manufacturers the unique opportunity to embrace future manufacturing technologies such as robotics and automation systems and rethink aspects of their manufacturing business from an Industry 4.0 perspective to create further value, improve efficiency, and facilitate offering better products, processes and services to a global market.
ASTUTE 2020 can support manufacturing companies across a variety of sectors, such as aerospace, automotive, energy generation, oil and gas, medical devices, electronics, foods, etc., stimulating growth by applying advanced engineering technologies to manufacturing challenges driving cutting-edge research and innovation. ASTUTE 2020 collaborations inspire manufacturing companies to improve and streamline their manufacturing processes, manufactured products and supply chain, generating sustainable, higher-value goods and services and bringing them to a global market.
The ASTUTE 2020 operation has been part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government and the participating Higher Education Institutions.