Robots: Will Work For Peanuts

July 1, 2005
Offering improved flexibility, faster speeds, heavier loadhandling capabilities and reduced upfront and operating costs, today's robots are finding a home in more and more warehouses and factories.

Imagine hiring workers for less than a dollar an hour. Good workers who worked at night and through holidays with no apparent interest in forming unions. Imagine that those workers liked doing the monotonous and the dirty, the heavy lifting and the hottest and coldest work. Some of them might even work for 30 cents an hour after you buy them. Buy them? Well, of course we are talking about robots.

With accuracies and durability at alltime highs, today the cost of running a robot can be around a dollar an hour, including power costs, maintenance and programming. Not since the mid-80s has the North American robotics industry been riding on such optimism.

While Japan remains the leader, U.S. industry may have finally seen the robot light. North American companies purchased 14,838 robots valued at nearly $1 billion in 2004. That's a 20 percent rise in units over 2003 and the industry's second-best unit total ever, according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA, Ann Arbor, Mich.). The record year was 1999 when U.S. companies bought nearly 16,000 units. Already, in the first quarter of 2005, RIA reports that 5,000-plus robots were purchased in North America, a potential record-setting pace. And these numbers do not include units imported from abroad by manufacturers that are not members of RIA.

Orders by North American automotive manufacturers and suppliers to the auto industry accounted for 64 percent of the total in 2004, down from 68 percent in 2003. Donald A. Vincent, RIA executive vice president, believes this is a sign that robots are gaining traction outside of automotive in such industries as food, pharmaceuticals, electronics, aerospace and life sciences. One particular area of growth is in packaging and palletizing.

Bigger Loads, Better Vision
Robots have been used in factories and warehouses for over 40 years. However, today's technology is a space age away from those earlier machines. Robots often come with vision capabilities and far more intelligence embedded that a whole shop might have had 20 years ago. Loads, for example, keep going up while accuracy is following suit.

"We're bringing out a new robot that will use overhead rail and be able to lift a 350 kilogram load," says Richard Johnson, who's in charge of the material handling business for Fanuc Robotics America, Inc. (Rochester Hills, Mich.). One advantage of the overhead approach is that it doesn't take up floor space. "It uses automatic indexing and is connected to an [automated guided vehicle system] or directly to the line. The M 900 IA/350 will be the largest counter balanced robot with an overhead mount in the industry."

Johnson notes a trend toward "random order palletizing." Most palletizing robots are for homogenous loads where the boxes are all the same size. But what about "rainbow loads," where sizes vary but row heights don't? Fanuc has been developing robotic systems that move and palletize product and material in a variety of configurations, which Johnson believes could double the size of the robotic palletizing business.

Further robotic trends include the increased use of vision technology. "This adds benefits to robotics in two ways. First is makes operations more cost-effective. The robot can adjust with the vision capability giving it more functionality and, secondly, it makes new applications possible," says Johnson. "De-palletizing, for example, requires vision. Last year, 10 percent of material handling robots went out with vision. That will double by 2006."

Besides the increased capabilities of "seeing" robots, the other attraction has been a remarkable drop in prices. " Vision used to be several hundred thousand dollars to add to a robot," Johnson says. It's now averaging $6,000 and up and we can have it up and running on the same day."

Among other technological developments, Kuka Robotics (Clinton Township, Mich., and Augsberg, Germany), has been taking advantage of the materials revolution. Kuka's new case-packing robot uses fiber composite material for its arm, which makes it lighter, faster and less expensive.

"Robotic packaging and palletizing is reshaping the whole supply chain. Our customers want the flexibility of a robot with the highest possible pack rates," says Joe Campbell, director of strategic alliances for Kuka Robotics Corp. This new robot is Kuka's third to use composite fiber technology. A larger work envelope reportedly makes it possible to handle homogenous and mixed palletizing as well as high-speed conveyors.

Small loads are the specialty of Epson Robots (Carson, Calif.). "Repeatability in our kind of robot, which is for the much lighter loads, has become much better. That's one area of improvement in recent years. Also, we're largely PC-based now," notes John Clark, national sales manager. Epson robots offer eight micron repeatability, precision that was unheard of 10 years ago.

Besides the refinements in the technology, cost is driving the increased interest and sales of robots in the United States. "It's the economics of it all," says Carl Traynor, senior marketing director for Motoman Inc. (West Carrollton, Ohio). "You can run a robot for a dollar or less an hour including electricity costs, maintenance and so on. While presently the most common use of robots is in automotive, the real growth is in packaging and palletizing. Material handling in general is our biggest area of growth." Accordingly, Motoman's latest entry into the robotic palletizing market, the EPL 80, features integrated cables and a compact design for smaller loads.

Five-axis, 80-kilogram Motoman EPL80 palletizing robot.

Kuka robot, featuring composite arms, palletizing milk products.

Robots That "Feel"?

Ever since the human imagination conjured up robots (introduced and popularized by Czech playwright Karel Capek), people have wondered if the Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot or Star Wars' R2D2 could every really be developed. Theorists like John Von Neuman and entrepreneurs like Joseph Engelberger of Unimate fame have challenged the academic worlds and industry with their innovative ideas.

Today, all kinds of amazing things are coming out of labs as the cost of industrial intelligence continues to follow Moore's Law, declining by half every 18 months. Meanwhile, robotic functionality has increased enormously as well as accuracy and payload capability.

Will robots ever really think or feel? Not yet, but electrical engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana have been studying a kind of skin that could give robots a sense of touch. A research team there developed a robot "skin" made of a flexible polymer with multiple sensors that simultaneously assess shape, force, hardness, motion, temperature and thermal conductivity. The closest we've come previously to robotic touch has been the use of strain gauges. This research aims for a lot more.

Meanwhile, robots at Cornell University are making copies of themselves without human intervention—Von Neuman's cyborgs come to mind. In principle, the robots will be able to reproduce themselves without human intervention in space and other environments.

"Our self-replicating robots perform very simple tasks compared with the intricacies in biological reproduction," explains Cornell assistant professor Hod Lipson. "But we think they demonstrate that mechanical self-reproduction is possible and not unique to biology."

On a more practical note, Motoman Inc. (West Carrollton, Ohio) developed a RoboBar that it unveiled in Las Vegas at a trade show last year. Although it's not one for chitchat, they claim that the cyborg martini mixer cost 30 cents per hour to operate. New robots in the service industry include robotic lawn mowers, floor vacuums and units developed by robot pioneer Joe Engelberger to run errands in healthcare facilities. Leading the way as always, the U.S. military is doing all kinds of research with robotic replacements for traditional troop duties. One example, remote controlled robotic vehicles may replace tanks and other vehicles doing landmine searching and clearing.

Coupled with the continuing decline in the cost of computer power, robotics offers great promise to manufacturers and distribution industries. Yet, it is the terrific increase in capability and use that has some futurists concerned. What happens when—10 years in the future by some estimates—the intelligence of robots outpaces humans. What will these smarter-than-we-are robots do? Whatever happens in the future, the technology coming out of government and industrial labs will continue to transform manufacturing and material handling in big ways.

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