George Devol designed the first programmable industrial robot in 1954. The auto industry took the lead in the adoption of robots and now claims more than half of all industrial robots deployed in U.S. manufacturing. Current robot design is the direct result of the influence of the auto industry. Today, other sectors such as electronics, aerospace, medical, and consumer products have realized the benefits of automation technologies, and are expected to implement robotic processes at an accelerated pace over the next five years. Robot manufacturers are listening to the voice of these new customers and starting to understand their needs to influence future designs and capabilities.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs, defined as companies with fewer than 500 employees) make up 99 percent of all firms in the US. In the past, only large companies could afford robotics. Financially, automation was out of reach for most SMEs. The price of robots is now decreasing to levels that make them affordable for most smaller companies. SMEs are the backbone of the U.S. economy, and automation integration would drive major gains in productivity and competitiveness.

What are the current trends in robotic manufacturing automation in the United States?

  • Continued ROI improvement: Robotics have already become affordable for most SMEs, and the cost will continue to decrease as through design innovation and manufacturing cost reductions facilitated by increased production quantities. Engineering expenses for automation will also continue to decrease as robots become easier to integrate.
  • Human-robot collaboration: There’s a new workforce on the horizon known as “cobots.” This term refers to a new class of robot designed to work safely along-side humans with minimal guarding to share and assist with manufacturing activities.
  • Improved robot senses: Until recently, robots have been relentless workers but senseless and dumb. It is currently commonplace for both 2D and 3D vision systems to be integrated with automation processes giving robots “eyes ” to guide their motions, the ability to measure and inspect, and to recognize the world around them. Other sensing technologies such as force and tactile feedback, laser measurement and RF sensors are also rapidly advancing robotic capabilities and intelligence.
  • Simpler to program: Recently, robot manufacturers have made a concerted effort to simplify the process of programming a robot. Most current cobots are designed to allow an operator with minimal training to program basic robot motion by gripping the cobot arm and moving it to the various points along the identified path. Robot pendant interfaces are becoming user-friendlier and more intuitive.

How do you determine what to automate?

  • Start by identifying manufacturing tasks that pose a safety hazard or present ergonomic issues to human operators. These tasks are primary candidates for robotic implementation.
  • Identify tasks that are repetitive and require a high degree of repeatability. Robots are relentless in performing repetitive tasks and will achieve high levels of process consistency.
  • Identify operations with multiple tasks that can be shared between a human and a cobot. Tasks that require a high degree of dexterity or judgment should be assigned to the human co-worker, and tasks that are repetitive and require repeatability should be assigned to the cobot. Successful implementation of human-cobot task co-sharing will facilitate higher process productivity and product quality.
  • Calculate an ROI for each potential robotic application. If you haven’t done a robotic ROI before, a good place to start is to use the Robotic Industries Association’s online calculator.

Want to learn more?

CAMA and EWI are hosting robotics events at Woodward in Fort Collins on Sept. 21 and Southern Colorado FourFront Fuse Impact Center in Colorado Springs on Sept. 22.