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Smooth and Steady: Prospects for the Robotics Industry in 2008

POSTED 01/04/2008

 | By: Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor

Despite the possibility of a slowdown in the economy, the outlook of those in the robotics industry in 2008 is generally optimistic.

‘‘I think 2008 will be a strong year for the robotics industry,’‘ says Richard O. Litt, President and Chief Executive Officer of Genesis Systems Group, Davenport, Iowa, and the new President of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Ann Arbor, Michigan. ‘‘General industry is doing well, and agricultural equipment manufacturing is very strong, as are health and fitness equipment manufacturers.’‘

The good news is tempered by challenges faced by the robotics industry, particularly by it largest user, the automotive sector. ‘‘The Big Three auto makers do not have the cash flow to fund the levels of automation of the last year or so. Yet, automotive manufacturers are under pressure to come up with new and fresh products, which helps the robotics industry,’‘ says Litt, who is the new president of the Robotic Industries Association.

 Food for Energy
While the automotive sector is important to the robotics industry, major players are looking to general industry for growth in 2008. Craig Jennings, President and Chief Operating Officer at Motoman Inc., West Carrollton, Ohio, says, ‘‘Most markets in the robotics industry will have modest growth in 2008. 2008 will be a good year for us but a not great one.’‘ Jennings’ analysis has a caveat: ‘‘If the economy slips into recession, that will slow growth. I expect 5 to 10% growth of the robotics industry in 2008.’‘

Jennings, like Litt, points out that agricultural applications will grow well in 2008. ‘‘Agriculture seems to be a hot market for robotics because of the push for ethanol. Corn is being turned into ethanol and other crops are taking the place of corn for feed, so agriculture is still chugging along,’‘ Jennings says. ‘‘Given the huge surge in alternative energy, I think agricultural applications will do well in 2008.’‘

Alternative energy sources are a bright spot for Jeff Burnstein, Executive Vice President of RIA. Burnstein says, ‘‘Alternative energy, like fuel cell manufacturing, represents a big opportunity for robot suppliers. At the 2007 Robotics Industry Forum, members listened to a presentation on the use of robotics by the fuel cell industry.’‘

Burnstein is referring to a talk given by Raymond H. Puffer, Jr., Program Director of the Industrial Automation Center for Automation Technologies and Systems at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York. Puffer spelled out opportunities for robotics in manufacturing fuel cells. ‘‘Ray Puffer leads an active program on how robots assist in fuel cell manufacturing. As the United States moves toward alternative sources of energy, fuel cells may be one of these alternatives. That is the kind of market that RIA can help develop’‘ says Burnstein

Food and beverage applications are among those that have potential for growth in 2008, comments Gary Zywiol, Vice President of Product Development at FANUC Robotics America, Inc., Rochester Hills, Michigan. Zywiol says, ‘‘FANUC is seeing an increase in robotic food handling, especially by big customers. Due to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements for cleanliness, food handling robots have to be able to withstand caustic cleaning and must be able to be hosed down.’‘

Furthermore, Zywiol says that robots are not just palletizing boxes of food products to ready them for shipping. ‘‘Robots are increasingly used upstream for handling the food itself because manufacturers are pushing for robots that can directly handle foods. We have made significant investments in the food sector and are hoping to see growth in 2008.’‘

Food applications represents an untapped opportunity for David Arceneaux, Business Development and Marketing Manger at Stäubli Robotics, Duncan, South Carolina. Arceneaux says, ‘‘In the food industry, robots are increasingly used in assembly lines. For example, robots are cutting lettuce, then picking and placing the two halves into trays for further processing.’‘

Food and beverage applications are also on the mind of Stuart Shepherd, President of KUKA Robotics Corp., Clinton Township, Michigan. Shepherd predicts, ‘‘KUKA expects to see growth in packaging and palletizing applications in the food and beverage industries during 2008.’‘

Other Applications
Aerospace could prove to be a source of increased business for the robotics industry in 2008. ‘‘Aerospace is a hot market, driven by a backlog at Boeing and strong activity by the defense industry,’‘ says Craig Jennings.

Jeff Burnstein is also bullish on aerospace applications, saying, ‘‘The robotics industry’s goal is to expand beyond automotive and penetrate into non-automotive markets, such as consumer goods, food and beverage, electronics and aerospace.’‘

Life Sciences are another application that is poised for growth in 2008. David Arceneaux foresees an increase in life science applications in 2008. ‘‘Stäubli hopes to get into more medical applications. Robots in this application require very high-precision positioning, as for medical procedures in out-patient surgery.’‘

Likewise, Craig Jennings of Motoman has high hopes for life science applications in 2008. Jennings says, ‘‘Life Sciences is an industry that is waking up to robotics. Laboratory applications, like the use of robotics in alternative energy applications, are areas that will grow in 2008.’‘

Gary Zywiol also envisions growth of robotics in life science applications in 2008. ‘‘The use of laboratory robots will increase. Pharmaceutical and laboratory applications are growing, but we would like to see them grow faster,’‘ says Zywiol. ‘‘Pharmaceutical uses are examples of the need of nurturing by the robotic industry to help life science companies become more comfortable with robotics.’‘

Traditional robotic applications will be able to hold steady or even increase slightly in 2008. John Burg, President of Automated Concepts, Inc., Council Bluffs, Iowa, sees some of these applications performing well this year. ‘‘Material handling, machine tending, and arc welding are up. Material removal applications seems to be pretty active, but the overall numbers are small in comparison to material handling and machine tending.’‘

Arc welding applications tied to vision systems has prospects for growth in 2008, according to Richard Litt. ‘‘In welding applications, we are seeing vision for dimensional inspection and for part presence inspection. I see a lot of interesting developments coming in 2008, such as robotic assembly, robotic servo-pressing and fastening, along with vision-guided inspection.’‘

Stuart Shepherd sees growth in several traditional robotic applications during 2008. ‘‘Process-intensive applications requiring a focus on detail, including arc welding, material removal, and polishing, will continue to grow especially as off-line programming capabilities improve.’‘ Shepherd goes on to say, ‘‘Applications in harsh and dangerous jobs will continue to drive growth.’‘

Gary Zywiol sees a potential for growth in the use of robots functioning as machine tools in 2008. ‘‘In the right application, robots can supplement machine tools. FANUC has done some robotic burr grinding from castings using a very stiff hexapod robot,’‘ Zywiol says. ‘‘When properly applied, robots are taking the place of machine tools, enabling end-users to save a lot of money.’‘

Zywiol remarks that machine tools are not going to get completely displaced by robots, but powerful, stiff robots can be used in place of machine tools in grinding and other material removal applications where a rigidity is required. Stiff robots have manipulator arms that do not flex while performing demanding tasks such as grinding, deburring or carrying heavy payloads.

Seeing the Future
The trend of having vision systems becoming a fully-integrated feature built into robots will continue in 2008. As vision systems get more robust, more capable, easier to use and less expensive, vision is on the path to being a standard feature in robots.

Roberta Nelson Shea, General Manager at Pilz Automation Safety, L.P., Canton, Michigan, speaks of developments in vision systems that will become available in 2008. ‘‘I see new vision products, like safe vision and camera systems for robotics. Both are in use by Mercedes-Benz in Germany and sample systems in the United States are being tried out.’‘ Nelson Shea notes Pilz will begin shipping these systems in North America during 2008.

Robot makers have begun to embed vision into their robots, making it a standard feature. Gary Zywiol says, ‘‘FANUC shipped 50% more robots with vision in 2007 than in 2006, and we expect that to continue in 2008. In the last five years, our robotic vision shipments have increased by 400%, so vision is growing faster than the rate of robotic growth.’‘

More robots are vision-ready, which allows users to simply plug in a camera. Integrated vision is a handy feature for end-users new to robotics who might not see the need for vision initially but could as their manufacturing requirements change.

Michael Jacobs, President and Chief Executive Officer of Applied Manufacturing Technologies, Inc., Orion, Michigan, says, ‘‘The next new thing is integrated vision, where every robot is delivered vision capable. End-users just add a camera to have a ‘seeing’ robot. While the concept is not revolutionary, the delivery is.’‘

Jacobs feels the benefit of vision-guided robots stems from the fact they require less complex tooling to perform their tasks. Major robot makers will begin offering embedded vision as a standard feature in 2008.

End-users see the advances in vision as a vital development to increase the effectiveness of robotics. Thomas Pearson, Automation Technology Leader at Ford Motor Company, looks forward to advances in three-dimensional vision. ‘‘Three-dimensional vision is getting to the point to where we can implement this technology because increased processor speeds enables more robust vision.’‘ Pearson says he would like to see more research on biometric sensors to be undertaken in collaboration between industry and government laboratories in 2008.

Next-Generation Robots
The evolution of ‘‘next-generation robotics,’‘ machines that will have integrated safety systems without the necessity for surrounding safeguards, will progress in 2008. Tom Pearson anticipates developments in next-generation robotics in 2008, saying, ‘‘I am looking for next-generation robotic technology. Ford sees an opening of human-robotic collaboration which can be done to a limited degree with intelligent assist devices that are commanded by a human.’‘

Pearson’s vision for next-generation robotics are robots that sense people are present and cannot hurt them. ‘‘The next generation of robotics has tremendous opportunity for Ford, but they are not here yet,’‘ says Pearson.

Roberta Nelson Shea of Pilz also expects safety systems integrated into robots to become standard in 2008. ‘‘Robot makers are introducing new models with control systems that have some embedded safety improvements for a lean and safe work cell. Compliance with safety standards will be tremendously improved when safety systems are embedded,’‘ asserts Nelson Shea.

Two Arms Could be Better than One
Dual-arm robots will get more attention from both robot suppliers and end-users in 2008. Craig Jennings has high hopes for dual-arm robots. ‘‘Motoman has a line of dual-arm robots that are new to the robotics industry. We will see similar products coming from other robot companies in 2008.’‘

Ford’s Tom Pearson observes, ‘‘We find dual-arm robots an interesting idea. We see how dual-arm robots can be used in a lot of applications, especially for engine and transmission handling.’‘ Look to see a proliferation of dual-arm robots over the course of 2008.

Robots to the Rescue
As globalization accelerates, robotics are increasingly vital to maintain the health of the industrial sector and keep manufacturing jobs at home. Jeff Burnstein makes the case for robots as key to provide manufacturers a choice other than relocating to a low-cost country or shutting its doors. ‘‘Now more than ever, the need to stay competitive is a driver for investing in robotics. Companies in North America are often faced with difficult choices: Do they send their manufacturing to low-cost producers overseas? Or, do they invest in robotics to continue making products here?’‘ Burnstein concludes that more companies are realizing that robotics are the better option.

Editor’s Note:
This article has been reviewed by members of the RIA Editorial Advisory Group.

For more information, you may contact any of the experts listed in this article or visit Robotics Online, Tech Papers.

John Burg, President, Automated Concepts, Inc., 712-328-3410, [email protected]

Michael Jacobs, President and Chief Executive Officer, Applied Manufacturing Technologies, Inc., 248-409-2108, [email protected]

Gary Zywiol, Vice President of Product Development, FANUC Robotics America, Inc., 248-377-7000, [email protected]

Thomas Pearson, Automation Systems Specialist, Ford Motor Company, 313-337-1651, [email protected]

Richard O. Litt, President and Chief Executive Officer, Genesis Systems Group, 563-445-5600, [email protected]

Stuart Shepherd, President, KUKA Robotics Corp., 586-569-2082, [email protected]

Craig Jennings, Motoman Inc., President and Chief Operating Officer, 937-847-6200, [email protected]

Roberta Nelson Shea, General Manager, Pilz Automation Safety L.P., 734-354-0270, [email protected]

Jeff Burnstein, Executive Vice President, Robotic Industries Association, 734-994-6088, [email protected]

David Arceneaux, Business Development and Marketing Manger, Stäubli Robotics, 864-433-1980, [email protected]