Robotics, Security and Safety:
Are you too small for Robotics?
As the they become advanced, robots are becoming cheaper, safer and easier to work with, which will boost market size and increase the penetration of the technology. Robotics is set to become one of the great investment trends of the coming decade.
Walk the floor of a manufacturing plant today and the chances are you will find virtually no robots. You will see people working with machine tools and perhaps automated systems to carry products from one work cell to the next, but either no robots at all, or very few. This fact may surprise many people, since factory robots have been around for a long time. But factory robots have always been expensive, difficult to set up and program, dangerous for people to work close to and often dedicated to a single task. All of these issues mean that robots only generally make economic sense to very large-scale manufacturers.
Robots – Cost and Complexity
Over the last few years, however, advances in technology have started to change this picture not just in terms of price, but also ease of use, safety and the versatility of robotics. Small and medium-size manufacturers who have never used robots are now starting to experiment with robotics, or are at least considering the possibility. Larger-scale manufacturers, too, are now starting to adopt robotics more broadly across their production plants for a broader range of processes.
As technology pushes down the cost and complexity of robotics, the opportunity for broad-based mass-adoption of robots in manufacturing and other sectors of the economy is very significant, often green-field or at a very nascent stage.
Where Are All the Robots?
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimate that in global manufacturing industries today there are on average just seven robots for every 1,000 factory workers. Averages are often misleading, and this case is no exception. The reason the average is so low is that the only industries using robots today in any number are automobile and semiconductor manufacturers. Typically these industries use 100 to 150 robots for every 1,000 workers, and together they account for approximately 60% of all industrial robots in use today.
A few other industries, such as metalworking, chemicals manufacturers, plastics producers and food manufacturers use some robotics, but most industries today typically have no robots on their factory floors.
Safety – Robots in Cages
Picture a car plant and we imagine rows of robots operating in elegant synchronization alongside an automated production line. This picture often helps perpetuate the myth that car plants are so fully automated that they employ very few human workers. The reality in most car plants, however, is quite different. Although it is true that the average number of robots in the auto industry is approximately 120 for every 1,000 workers, and this is far higher than the average across other manufacturing industries, since people typically work an 8-hour shift while a robot runs for three shifts every 24 hours, the actual ratio during any shift is 120 robots to just 333 workers. However, that is still close to three times more people than robots.
The reason there are no people is that the robots are dangerous. The robots are inside cages, in areas cordoned off from the human work force. Despite these precautions, accidents still occur. In 2015, a worker in a car plant in Germany was crushed by a robot and died from his injuries. Later in the same year, an engineer in a US car parts plant was trapped and killed by robotic machinery. The fact that robots are dangerous greatly restricts their usefulness in manufacturing, because many processes in production require some level of human input. In some cases, automating an entire process is possible, but it may be cheaper and simpler to involve people. Therefore, the use of robots has generally been restricted to tasks where the robot can perform the process entirely autonomously.
Free the Robot
The new generation of robots use a combination of sensors and smart algorithms, allowing them to be used without safety cages, operating in close proximity and often in collaboration with human workers. For this reason, this new generation of robots are known as collaborative robots, or co-bots. These advances allow for a huge jump in the number and range of tasks that robots can be employed to perform.
In fact, not only are many of these new robots safe to work with, they can also be used to perform dangerous tasks, eliminating the need for workers to put themselves at risk.
Price – Mass Adoption
As technology advances, robots are not only becoming safer to work with, but also cheaper and easier to use. Today, even the smallest companies can benefit from some of the same productivity, efficiency and quality tools the giants of industry have used for decades. The current leader in the market for collaborative robots, Universal Robots, recently published a booklet entitled, "Are You too Small for Robotics?", which leads the reader through a series of questions and concludes:
Co-bots are an ideal option for small and mid-sized manufacturers of almost any type. Find out how you can grow your business, improve productivity and quality, and provide better and safer working conditions for your employees.
The price of traditional industrial robots varies widely depending on application and size, as well as the size of the customer’s order, but typically ranges from USD 50,000 to USD 150,000 for a single robotic arm. The cost of setting up, calibrating and programming the robot adds a further 100% to the price, sometimes more if an automated system is needed to feed the robot with inventory. Part of the setup cost is driven by the need to establish safety measures around the system and the fact that, once the robot is installed and operational for a certain task, if needs change and it is required to perform a different task, the cost of that reprogramming can also be significant.
These costs put robots well out of reach for most small and medium-size companies, but in just the last few years a number of companies have developed robots that are commercially available at for as little as USD 20,000. These new robots use innovative technologies such as force resistance, machine vision and program by demonstration, making them safe to work with and easy to set up and program. Earlier this year, a maker of tools for robots, Robotiq Corp, published a "Buyer’s Guide to Collaborative Robots", comparing systems from 20 companies, with typical prices around USD 20,000 to USD 40,000. At this price point, robots are becoming accessible to even the smallest manufacturers, and can in fact be used in far greater number by the largest manufacturers. Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based maker of a co-bots, summarizes some of the key differences of their Baxter co-bot compared to traditional industrial robots.
Car makers, who have invested in traditional industrial robots for decades and understand well the productivity and efficiency benefits available from robotics, have been some of the earliest adopters of these new technologies. The plants currently experimenting with these new robotic technologies are known as factories of the future. Volkswagen is using collaborative robots to help workers tighten difficult to reach screws in power-train assembly; Audi now produces its R8 model on a modular and mobile work-cell format rather than a traditional linear production line; BMW uses 3D printers to make more than 10,000 parts used in the Rolls-Royce Phantom; and Porsche now appears to have one of the highest ratios of robots to workers in the world in their new Leipzig body shop for the Panamera model.
With lower prices and less complexity, robots can now be used by companies with smaller production volumes and companies with production spread over a broad range of products. Robots are no longer the preserve of high-volume, low-mix industrial giants. Cheaper prices make robotics economically accessible to even the smallest manufacturer.
But robotics might also change the economics of manufacturing sectors in other more fundamental ways. Economic theory suggests that factories exist to maximize utilization of the capital invested in the machines and equipment of production. But if the cost of that production equipment declines significantly, some manufacturers may be tempted to break up their manufacturing centers into smaller, distributed regional bases, bringing the finished product closer to the end customer, shortening delivery times and enabling more product customization.
We are already starting to see examples of this. According to Boston Consulting,2 Daimler believes that customers will soon be able to make last-minute changes to the customization of their vehicle while it is in production. Adidas’ highly automated plant in Ansbach, Germany, known as the Speedfactory, is designed to produce running shoes in a single day, rather than the two or three months needed in the traditional supply chain production process.3 The cost of the robotics and production in high-cost countries such as Germany are expected to be more than offset by the ability to produce small volumes or highly customized shoes to match local tastes and meet current demand.
As technologies continue to advance, robotics and automation systems are becoming cheaper, but also safer, smarter and easier to use. These developments suggest that robots are likely to be adopted by an increasingly broad range of manufacturers as well as by other areas of the economy such as the hospitality, healthcare and service industries. This process is likely to be a slow and gradual long-term phenomenon, as most manufacturers and industries are still unaware of the potential of robotics and of how to use them most effectively in their processes. As the world adopts an increasing number of automated and robotic systems to increase productivity, enhance quality of life or perhaps perform dirty or dangerous tasks, the security of these systems will become increasingly critical. The relationship between robotics and security is symbiotic, with more automated systems requiring more security and controls, while in turn, more security and controls necessitate more automated management and coordination tools to operate efficiently.