Robots and Industry 4.0

Excerpt

Robots are critical in the new generation, smart factories. They offer several advantages over legacy production methods, can be used across industries and face fewer challenges in deploying them.


“In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time magazine as the best CEO. Machines will do what human beings are incapable of doing. Machines will partner and cooperate with humans, rather than become mankind’s biggest enemy.”

~Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba (2017)

Jack Ma may or may not be correct about robot CEOs, but he is on point with these machines forming an essential part of the newest phase of industrialization, popularly called the Industry 4.0.


Industry 4.0 became the buzzword after first being introduced by the German government at the Hannover Fair in 2011.


Since then, governments and companies across the developed and developing world have been deliberating on making the transition from the present generation to a highly digitized industry. An industry that is interconnected, has a very high degree of automation and involves localized decision making.

These ‘smart factories’ contain systems and digital technologies that network, interact and exchange data with each other thus creating incredibly effective, automated and innovative means of production.

Some of these cyber-physical systems and technologies contributing to this 4th industrial revolution include:




Robots and every facet of robotics are central to the smart factory-empowering workers, improving productivity, lowering costs and a safer working environment.


Let’s delve into the role of robots in Industry 4.0 and later study how a European manufacturer benefited immensely by embracing robots in this futuristic industrial environment.


We’ll also take a look at challenges the industries will need to confront while laying down systems and processes for a truly Industry 4.0 production floor.


But first, a quick chronicle of how robots entered the industrial workspace and their evolution with the times.


History of Robots in Factories


The early robots were mostly ‘technology demonstrators’ but their first real-world application came with General Motors installing industrial robots in its production facilities in 1961.


The UNIMATE was a hydraulic manipulator arm that could execute metalworking and welding operations.


While some advancement happened in subsequent years in Europe and Japan, experts largely agree that the modern age of industrial robots commenced from 1980 onwards.


One of the crucial developments during this time was the motors that were fixed in the robotic joints resulting in remarkable increases in speed and accuracy.


From barely 6-axis robots at the origin, new robotic systems could control up to 27 axes by the end of the 20th century.


Much later, a new form of robots called Cobots (collaborative robots) was invented. For the first time, robots and humans could work closely without any safety shield in between.


Pioneered by Universal Robots, today cobots are used in multiple industries with several real-world uses and are deployed across the world.


Industrial robots have seen ongoing demand in the market due to constant innovations in the field of robotics.


With a double digit increase in sales the previous decade and new applications explored, robots are at the heart of the latest industrial era.


Robots in Industry 4.0

John Doe, a well-known industry expert rightly points out:


“When companies look at deploying robots, they mostly aim at decreasing employee count. That’s a very short-sighted way to understand robots in a smart factory. But in the long term, industry leaders will realize the values and benefits of utilizing smart systems and robots in their businesses.”


So what are these values and benefits?




This is how robots look in Industry 4.0 and perhaps beyond:

Collaborative


Most robots are assigned dull, dirty or dangerous jobs. However, businesses are finding that they’re extremely helpful in collaborative settings too.

Cobots, as they’re called, work alongside factory employees and aid in difficult or sensitive jobs such as moving heavy objects or inspecting the quality of components.


Smaller Sized


New robots aren’t just more efficient, they’re also way smaller than the giant machines we see on the traditional shop floors. And this means robots are more cost-effective and accessible to small businesses than ever before.


Powerful


Make no mistake-new robots may be compact but are far more powerful than their predecessors. All thanks to faster processors, sensors and increasingly better technologies.


According to the International Federation of Robotics:


“From 2020 to 2022 almost 2 million new units of industrial robots are expected to be installed in factories around the world. New technology trends and market developments enable companies to react to changing requirements.”


Robots are already proving their mettle in smart manufacturing. Here’s a success story of a robotics company that helped a major automotive brand seriously increase their productivity.


A Brief Case Study


The robotics company AISC recently set a benchmark for robots in Industry 4.0 by helping the European automotive company First Motors make a huge leap in productivity.


AISC connected the production facility’s 300 robots and thousands of other devices with back-end monitoring set-up and a data management system.


By creating networking and process control systems, AISC enabled high production volumes and a range of models on the same production line for First Motors.


The result?


Every 60 seconds, around ten thousand chassis of different vehicles now roll out of the same assembly line.


And all this with exacting standards, high flexibility and great quality-features that the automotive industry demands.


This production facility is now deservingly considered a model for the European automotive industry.


While the potential of robots in the factories of today and the future are huge, business leaders face new challenges in using them.


A Few Cautions


An evolving labor force


With such a high level of automation, smart factories will employ fewer workers. While lesser skilled employees may face redundancy, the ones with industry-ready skills will be prized.


Cybersecurity


The more systems are linked to smart devices and the Internet, the more vulnerable they’ll be to cyber-attacks.

Even with advancements in cybersecurity, hackers can technically break into networks and wreak havoc in production facilities.

Manufacturers will need to adopt robust security solutions and monitoring software to protect essential equipment at all times.


Robots with a human touch


‘Humanoids’ are still in a nascent stage but as we deploy more robots in industrial plants, we will need them to be more social, reasonable and truly collaborative.


Even with new challenges, robots can not just bring immense benefits to Industry 4.0, it can also create new industries in the future.


Companies embracing these extremely intelligent machines will have a huge head start over those wanting to preserve a legacy industrial base.