The idea of a human-looking robot has been a staple of science-fiction for decades, and of mythological imaginings since as far back as the Ancient Greeks.
It is only in the last few years, however, with the recent publicity for Boston Dynamics, that this dream appears to be finally coming close to fruition.
The word robot comes from the Czech for ‘forced labour’ (robota) and much of the fear that exists in the manufacturing sector relates to the relationship between robots and employment. As a Forbes’ commentator recently put it, ‘Robots Will Take Our Jobs And We Need A Plan’.
But what do we really have to fear from robots – and what do we have to gain?
When does automation become robotics?
Sorry to disappoint, but robots are nothing new.
The reality is that robotics – or at least advanced automation – has been widely used in manufacturing since the 1970s.
The machines just didn’t look particularly humanoid.
Robotics is automation plus AI. It’s the recent advent of the Internet of Things and machine learning that is increasingly making today’s robots so useful and, for some, such a threat.
The difference between robotics and automation is one of degree: automated machines perform a single set of operations but robots can smartly change their behaviour – by learning from sensory feedback or data feeds – to achieve better efficiency.
A brief history of robots in manufacturing
George Devol applied for the first robotics patents in 1954: his company Unimation were using robots to move items since 1956.
Automotive production lines were early adopters using machines to carry out repetitive processes which require high amounts of consistency such as spot welding and spray coatings.
Sophisticated robotics in logistics hubs and warehouses have been directing goods for dispatch for many years.
Today, robots are widely used in manufacturing, assembly and packing, transport, earth and space exploration, surgery, weaponry, laboratory research and the mass production of consumer and industrial goods.
In our own EMS industry, printed circuit boards are almost exclusively manufactured by pick-and-place robots, typically with SCARA manipulators: and as electronic components get smaller the need for smarter, more precise robots will only increase.
According to figures from the International Federation of Robotics the trend suggests there will be a dramatic increase for all.
Estimated worldwide annual supply of industrial robots (in units) (Source)
Today there are more than 2 million industrial robots in use – and it is expected there will be 3.8 million by 2022.
The biggest users of these are:
- The automotive industry (33%)
- The electrical/electronics industry (32%)
- The metal and machinery industry (12%)
- The rubber and plastics industry with (5%)
- And the food industry (3%)
What do robots bring to the table for electronics?
With the disruptive force of robots bearing down very heavily on the electronic manufacturing industry – and with IOT, data and AI looking set to increase their presence – now is a good time to take stock and review exactly what robotics is bringing to the table.
In relation to PCB manufacturing, robots can place hundreds of thousands of components per hour, far out-performing a human in terms of speed, accuracy, and reliability. As electronics shrink in size, the precision of robotic production methods becomes essential.
Robots can do much more than just build, place and weld. They can also quickly and accurately check all the components to ensure they match the required spec and are placed accurately.
As IoT sensors become ever more prevalent, the benefits start to really add up.
Using data from connected, always-on devices robots can respond to situations in real time. Our machines become not only faster and more precise, but also smarter and more aware. A robot can speed up or slow down based on its surroundings or the timing of small-batch production cycles. And it can collaborate with others to work more intelligently.
Here are some of the benefits that robots are already delivering.
- They can work in environments dangerous to humans (such as deep sea, space or in hazardous environments.)
- They can work faster and with more precision than humans.
- They can create efficiencies throughout the process, from raw material handling to finished product packing.
- They can be programmed to operate 24/7 – in lights-out situations – for continuous production.
- Robotic equipment can perform complex functions and is absolutely essential for the latest generation of smaller products.
Why are we still afraid of the Big Bad Bot?
The threat of the robot – the opening scene of Terminator (Source)
Despite these obvious advantages, there remain three big fears that continue to hold back electronic manufacturers from embracing robots.
We touched on the first of these before: namely, the fear that robots will steal our jobs.
The second is the initial cost of introducing them.
And the third is the cultural and procedural changes that robotics inevitably demand.
- Consider the following, in relation to the ‘forced labour’ of robots stealing our jobs.
The cost-efficiencies of robots can help companies become globally competitive once more. They can reverse the trend of offshore production and create jobs by reshoring manufacturing work.
They protect workers from repetitive, mundane and dangerous tasks, while also creating more desirable jobs, like engineering, programming, management and equipment maintenance. By freeing up manpower manufacturers can maximize workers’ skills in other areas of their businesses.
As a recent McKinsey report put it:
‘The production systems of the future will still require people in many of the roles they hold today, but the nature of those roles will change. Operators will need new capabilities as low-skill tasks are automated and increasingly sophisticated equipment requires skilled people to run it.’
Robots will not steal our jobs. They will enable us to gain skills and compete more effectively for work we had lost.
- Consider these factors in relation to concerns over costs.
Robots used in manufacturing tend to achieve ROI quickly, often within two years, thanks to their throughput and output gains.
Their upfront cost is quickly recouped.
Manufacturing robots are much more affordable today than ever before. Standard robot models are now mass-produced, making them accessible to smaller scale businesses.
And robotics as a service (RaaS) lowers the barrier even further, offering the rental or temporary acquisition of hardware to keep costs more manageable.
- And, finally, in relation to the fear of change.
The barrier for entry has been lowered not just for cost. It has also been increasingly lowered in terms of the technical understanding and skills required to introduce robots to the assembly line. Plug and play installation is now very much a reality.
Nevertheless, the investment in the robot itself still remains only part of the equation. Resources must be committed to training and consistent optimisation, possibly over many years.
Robots also usually require a cultural shift. Fully integrating robotic solutions may well require fundamentally changing the way a business operates. Their disruptive potential can introduce changes to software platforms, material consumption, supply chains, ERP, MRP and even the working culture of a business.
Yet, the real question is are these changes for the good?
Do they introduce enhanced capabilities, realise efficiencies, result in cost-savings and create better products?
And the answer, we believe, is a resounding yes.
How Chemigraphic is using robotics to deliver the services today’s OEMs require
These are exciting times.
Times when we know we can continually enhance and improve the services we offer.
Robotics and IoT capabilities are an important part of this, but it’s investment in skills, talent and staff that ensures new technologies are optimised and effective.
Additive manufacture is already commonplace for us in areas such as enclosure development. It is also being used for immediate applications in some very niche technologies, such as specialist antennas and waveguides.
We continually monitor progress and developments in this for use in other fields, and our Design Centre collaborates closely with our customer base to take advantage of new technologies.
Our inspection tools are becoming ever more sophisticated.
Many years ago, simple comparator inspection systems – which look for differences between a stored image and the item being inspected – were superseded by inline Automated Optical Inspection, with 3D scanning and X-Ray capabilities.
Wireless monitoring systems are extensively being used to remotely check a range of conditions, including stock on shelves, reels on feeders and temperature or humidity in production areas.
And, as more RF-ID and IoT sensors collect increased amounts of data, we expect to introduce new automated tracking and production systems.
We have already developed libraries of complex database analysis and metric capture tools. These are displayed on dashboards and allow performance indicators to be assessed and immediately responded to. Machine learning and automated responses will be increasingly involved in our monitoring and decision-making over the coming years.
We’re not afraid of robotics
At Chemigraphic, we welcome the efficiencies and productivity gains that the further integration of robots, artificial intelligence and data capture will bring.
We intend to continue to harness this to deliver better service and better products.
We are not afraid of the Big Bad Bot! Are you?