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Robot Makers Feel Cautiously Optimistic About 2001

POSTED 01/30/2001

 | By: Hallie Forcinio, Contributing Editor, Managing Automation Magazine

Despite a slowdown in the economy, in general, and the automotive industry, in particular, robot sales for 2001 should be equal to or even better than 2000, according to most robotic industry executives.

While some observers think the automotive industry, which accounts for more than 50 percent of the robots deployed, will drag sales figures down for the year, others feel this pressure will be countered by strong demand from other sectors even though capital equipment purchases are being looked at extra carefully in light of the slower economy.

'Industrial markets like electronics, plastics, machine tools, food/beverage and consumer products will more than offset the softness setting in in automotive,' says Kevin Ostby, vice president of the General Industries Group at Fanuc Robotics North America, Rochester Hills, MI, and current president of the Robotic Industries Association, Ann Arbor, MI.

'Some of these markets are just beginning to apply robotics at the rate the automotive industry did in the late eighties and early nineties,' he adds.

Despite strong interest from numerous sectors, the year won't be worry free. The Purchasing Managers' Index published by the National Association of Purchasing Management, Tempe, AZ, has been showing a downward trend for several months. At press time, the composite index, which tracks new orders, production, supplier deliveries, inventory and employment, had fallen near the point where the economy turns from expansion to contraction.

Although this does not bode well for capital equipment investment, any reluctance to buy a robot will be balanced by manufacturer needs to become more efficient and productive, improve quality and reduce ergonomic and environmental hazards. 'Attention to these things continually increases year over year,' says Doug Rhoda (pictured right), vice president, marketing at ABB Flexible Automation, Fort Collins, CO. Of course, robot sales could only benefit if the Fed continues to drop interest rates to encourage spending.

Another factor supporting healthy robot sales is the difficulty manufacturers are experiencing in hiring and retaining skilled labor. 'Robotic solutions allow them to leverage the people they have and enable them to be more productive,' says Rhoda.

Finally, business should be good for robot upgrades, as well. Upgrades to robot systems generally are necessitated by a change in the customer's product or the existence of new technology that makes a needed function practical. Economic pressures and a growing number of older robots are encouraging redeployment of old equipment. 'Many customers want robots refurbished, married with refurbished or new positioners and redeployed,' says Craig Jennings, president of Motoman, Inc., West Carrollton, OH.

Upgrades also are undertaken when there has been a heavy investment in programming and fixturing and it's easier to rebuild and redeploy rather than start from scratch with a new unit. Of course, upgrading an existing system usually represents a cost savings compared to buying new, so that makes it an attractive investment for end users, especially in a tight economy.

Robot Destinations
Strong growth in robot populations will be seen in several industries in 2001 including electronics/semiconductors, fiberoptics, warehousing (both e-commerce and traditional), parcel handling, plastics, packaging, medical devices, consumer goods, food/beverage, recreational equipment, pharmaceutical, research, laboratory and medical.

In semiconductors, the driving force is the transition from 200- to 300-millimetre (mm) wafers. 'The size and weight of the 300-mm wafer lends itself to robotics,' explains Ostby.

In machine tools, where skilled labor is especially scarce, robots increasingly are being installed as machine feeders. 'The largest untapped market in the United States is machine tool loading and unloading,' reports Steve Harris (pictured left), president and chief executive officer of Rixan Associates, Dayton, OH. Robots also are handling more machine tending tasks like holding parts. Eliminating the need for conventional tooling and fixturing reduces costs.

Even automotive, although likely to be down from previous years, will generate a respectable number of sales. 'We've been increasing the number of robots we use because of their flexibility,' notes Steve Holland, director of controls, robotics and welding at the GM Tech Center in Warren, MI.

Robots are taking on new tasks, too, with considerable activity centered in gauging and laser processing, especially robotic laser cutting. Robotic spot welding is growing, especially for smaller subassemblies that previously have been handled by dedicated welding equipment. Robots also are performing more high deposition welding tasks.

Trends for 2001
Industry observers generally agree that trends currently at work, such as enhancement of reliability, accuracy, repeatability and ease of use, will continue to boost robot performance and provide entrée into new applications this year and for the foreseeable future. 

Despite substantial increases in speed, accuracy and payload capacities in recent years, 'there is still a significant amount of room to continue those improvements over the next five to 10 years,' says Ostby.

As with all automation tools, robotic developments rely on advancements in both hardware and software. Hardware increasingly is tied to the ever more power personal computer (PC) and components like 64-bit RSIC processors, which provide true 32-channel multitasking so the robot control unit can run peripheral devices in the work cell like machine vision systems and conveyors.

Software is moving in two directions. It's not only more powerful, but also easier to use. 'With PC-based technology, we're working on ways to offer easier, more operator friendly interfaces, as well as a more user friendly programming language,' says Jim Degen, former president, Kuka Robotics Corp., Sterling Heights, MI.

Eventually, the PC will take the place of the teach pendant for robot programming and user friendly interfaces will evolve to the point that operation is 'user obvious' with a look an feel like the computer many workers now have at home, says Rich Litt (pictured left), president, Genesis Systems Group, Davenport, IA.

In addition, offline programming and simulation will expedite installation and minimize downtime. 'Online programming takes time,' notes Rhoda. 'If you can minimize or eliminate downtime by programming completely off-line, productivity improves markedly,' he explains. This capability also will help meet the demand for handling batches of one.

Reduction in online programming time is rapidly making simulation an essential tool. Even novice robot users are becoming savvy about the advantages of being able to prepare the robot offline, and have been known to base a purchase on this ability. Being able to model a robot system before installation allows its full capability to be demonstrated and helps novice users reach a comfort level with the technology. It also allows potential glitches to be worked out in advance of installation and startup and enables quicker optimization of a robot's work sequence and path.

'It's allowed us to do lots of things better than before and continues to be a big opportunity,' says Holland. 'We get a tremendous value out of simulation,' he adds. 'We would get even more if it weren't so difficult to do the calibration necessary to perform the simulation,' he concludes.

Existing simulation packages are far from perfect, agrees Harris, who would like to see an affordable, PC-based, real-time simulation system. Today's most capable systems are expensive and require high-end computing equipment, while 'The low end systems are slow and don't include 3D full shaded graphics,' he says.

As the year passes, we'll see more network-compatible controllers, including wireless units, internet-enabled systems for remote monitoring and operation, continuing miniaturization of controls, servo packs and drives, and 'sighted' robots equipped with machine vision systems for guidance, part location and enhanced precision.

Networkability is viewed as essential to meet growing customer demand to link robotic cells to factory business systems so operation can be monitored and reports generated automatically rather than manually prepared from figures jotted on a scratch pad.

'Replacing hard-wired robot cables with digital servo networks simplifies installation and maintenance and lowers costs,' says Joe Campbell, vice president, marketing at Adept Technology, Inc., San Jose, CA. This happens because a single twisted pair of wires replaces a couple hundred. The bigger cables are not only expensive, but also a common source of failure due to the hundreds of contact points.

Internet enablement reduces downtime and protects quality by allowing the robot to be monitored and operated from anywhere in the world. As a result, performance problems can be corrected and programs changed without sending someone to the cell. Internet enablement also may answer demands for more standardized systems. In effect the robot becomes a web server and is accessible from remote sites via standard computers and communications software.

Look, too for more standard solutions to meet demands for a system that can perform the desired task with minimum of custom programming and is easy to maintain and operate. While most suppliers have developed standardized welding solutions, and several offer standardized palletizing solutions, the concept is spreading to other applications like laser cutting and press tending, machine loading, die cast handling and packaging.

Standardization of a slightly different nature is on Holland's wish list. He'd like to see more international standardization for features like communications, mechanical/electrical interfaces. 'Standardization would make robots much easier to deploy,' he says.

'At some point manufacturers will have to collaborate on some commonality,' agrees Litt, who wants common teach pendants, inputs/outputs configuration. 'It will slow growth if everyone has a proprietary look and feel,' he warns.