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Automation Advances Expand Robot Applications

POSTED 01/29/2001  | By: An Interview With Craig Jennings

Craig Jennings, MotomanQ:  What Is The State Of The North American Robotics Industry?

Jennings:  When I started in robotics 20 years ago, I had heard how the robot industry would do $1 billion by 1990.  Even though the analysts got it wrong, the industry eventually got it right by doing $1.25 billion in 1999.  Robot saturation in the West is only 50% of Europe with a similar GDP, and only 20% of Japan, which sports one-half our GDP.  The industry went from 3,000 robots in 1990 to more than 15,145 robots last year.

The robotics industry has seen a big shift in the applications where robots are applied.  Ten years ago, automotive and truck industries were the dominant purchasers of robots.  Spot welding made up nearly 50%of all robots purchased in both unit and dollar volumes.  Today this has changed, with non-automotive purchases gaining a larger and larger base of all robots purchased.  In total dollars, material handling is the dominant application with 32%, followed by spot welding at 19%, arc welding at 14%, coating/dispensing at 13%, material removal/cutting at 5%, assembly at 1%, and parts, service, & other making up the remainder.  On a unit basis, spot welding percentage rises to 35%, slightly behind material handling also at 35%, arc welding is 18%, coating/dispensing reduces to 6%, and the remainder of the applications hold similar percentage to their dollar totals.

We are seeing standard automation solutions becoming the industry driver versus specific robot specifications.  The Internet is making more people comfortable around computers and software has become easier to use, contributing to the development of new markets.  This includes the service sector where the U.S. Post Office became the largest purchaser of robots on a single project last year at $60M.  In another instance, a particular OEM uses robots to dispense prescriptions to high-volume pharmacies.  The proliferation of robots has gone beyond traditional markets.

The outlook for the industry is extremely positive in light of the comparisons to other economies and the recognition by all industries of the potential for robots.  Robots help drive quality, productivity, cost reduction, and quality of life improvements for workers.  Robots have played a significant role in advancing the productivity that has powered the bull market of the past 10 years and will continue to propel North American industry to maintain its new found manufacturing leadership.

Q:  Let’s Address A Current Technology Buzz Within Robotics, Pc-Based Robot Controllers, Where Do You See This Going?

Jennings:  PC-based robot control is here today, but you don’t see many in the marketplace because of cost and some minor negative performance attributes.  Motoman has had a PC-based robot controller for over three years, but we are just gearing up to formally provide the product as an option to the market place next year.  The cost issue is simply a volume issue.  Since PC-based robot controllers are an exception versus the rule, the lower volumes, as compared to higher volume proprietary solutions, dictate higher prices.  The advantages of PC-based robot controllers are centered around the ease with which PC related software and communication can be incorporated and the lower cost and time required to incorporate third party solutions for various sensor capabilities like vision and force sensing.  The current disadvantages are also related to items that plague any personal computer.  Long delays at start-up, crashes due to the default HMI package – Windows®, and the requirement for higher processing speeds due to less efficient command structures.  In spite of these current weaknesses, in the next couple of years PC-based robot controllers will gain significant acceptance.

Relative to some of the expected trends in PC-based controls; we can start with what will be major enhancements.  Since the engine for these controls is a PC, software that typically had to interface to a robot controller from a PC, now can be resident on the PC-based control.  Motoman has been anticipating the evolution of the PC-based robot control for more than six years, and in turn developed many powerful software products which we expect to incorporate directly on our PC-based robot controller.  We have a highly evolved PC-based off-line programming package, a highly accurate PC-based robot calibration package, a highly intuitive PC-based expert maintenance package, and many powerful programming packages, that allow users to easily program difficult and diverse pallet configurations.

Now let’s talk about what will be excluded.  The current primary interface for an operator or programmer is the teach pendant.  This device will be used less and less as more of the software tools discussed above become part of the PC-based robot control.  Teach pendants may be kept around for ease of use to perform a quick check of something or to move the robot rather than going into the program, but when it comes to doing real programming, it will eventually be done on a computer.

One other topic that needs to be addressed is that of  “generic” PC-based robot controllers.  Companies that provide control solutions for another company’s equipment declare that this is a good thing for end users due to commonality of product for training and repair purposes.  However, when you are controlling any robot like device, the exact kinematic solution is critical to get optimal performance.  If the exact kinematic solution is not available to the generic control manufacturer, thus the control manufacturer has to reverse engineer the kinematic solution, the robot performance will be worse than performance that would result by the original manufacturer.  Thus the future of “generic” PC-based robot control companies seems to be limited to the role of retrofitting old robots, versus supplying new robot controllers.  This role is further complicated by the need to meet ANSI/RIA 15.06 specifications on all remanufactured robots post June 21, 2001.

Q:  What Is A Significant Future Technology Trend?

Jennings:  Clearly the Internet will be a major force in future robotic technology.  Providing services to the customer, gathering information from the equipment, and directly servicing the equipment is all within our grasp, sooner rather than later.

Low-cost, cellular communication methods that use open communication media will allow cells and devices on the factory floor to be interconnected and networked.  Portal servers will be connected in a protected mode to companies that supply manufacturing equipment, allowing them full access to the equipment as needed.  Many different functions will be able to be performed.  Important information can be collected and analyzed.  Software updates can be distributed automatically.  If the user is having a problem, the problem can be diagnosed directly by a technician who will access the machine over the network and either fix the problem on-line or identify the cause very precisely to minimize troubleshooting and repair time.  Though all of this can be performed today, the Internet will become more robust and more powerful, making these capabilities truly robust.

Q:  Any Additional Comments?

Jennings:  In the 1980s, the popular belief was that manufacturing was going to dry up in the U.S., and we would become a retail and service economy.  Now, we have become known as the most productive and efficient manufacturers in the world.  Many technologies have contributed to this turn around, with robotics being a significant one.  This bodes well for a rapidly growing industry and a rapidly growing company!

This article was printed in the January 2001 edition of Modern Application News.  It is part of a series of discussions with leaders in the metalworking industry, during which they share their insights and observations with Modern Applications News and the readers.