Robots and people are joining forces

by Hans Diederichs

You can rely on robots – and not only for precision welding, bending and cutting of pipes or for transporting and depositing pipes. They generate steadily increasing sales figures for their manufacturers and users just as reliably. And that, even though their huge, boundary-shifting time has only just begun. Because soon enough, robots will use artificial intelligence to catapult industrial production into spheres that were previously unimaginable.

Robots are a model for success. Maybe not on the catwalk yet, where they probably will not look good in the future too – rather awkward-looking – but in production. Impressive figures from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) demonstrate just how much their use in industry, and so also for pipe production, has changed purely in terms of quantity. In 2008, the number of industrial robotics units worldwide was still 113,000. In 2018 this number climbed to 384,000 units. Where it will end is completely open!

China, the biggest customer

The Asian-Australian market relies heavily on the support of robots. The demand was for 260,000 units last year, 71,000 in Europe and 49,000 in America. China remains by far the largest customer – according to IFR estimates, it acquired 133,000 in 2018, followed by Japan with just over 52,000 units. The USA, the third largest market for robots, made a notable 15 % leap to a total of 38,000 units last year.

“The North American countries – US, Canada and Mexico – represent the second largest operating base of industrial robots in the world after China,” said IFR president Junji Tsuda, president of the International Federation of Robotics. While many major robot system integrators came from North America, most major robot manufacturers are in Japan, Korea and Europe.

Closed process chains

Love that lasts – robots remain in demand, even in the face of global economic and political uncertainties. Germany as example: according to the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA), German robotics and automation achieved a sales volume of 15 billion euros for the first-time in 2018 – an increase of 4 %.

“Geographically, the strongest development of course take place in the markets which today still completely or partially dispense with automation,” explains Stefanie Flaeper, Managing Director at transfluid. Wherever employees can exert qualitative influence on products, the potential is also very high. “If closed process chains are desired, there is certainly great potential for growth here. This is also of interest when dealing with sensitive components.”

Automotive as the engine

The driving force behind the ever-increasing demand for robots is the automotive sector, where robot use is gaining momentum. This is followed by areas such as electrics/electronics, metal, plastics and chemical products as well as the food and beverage industry. In other words, a development that electrifies numerous industries.

The size of the company plays a key role in the use of robots. In 2018, almost every sixth company in the manufacturing sector (16 %) in Germany with at least ten employees used industrial or service robots. As the German Federal Statistical Office explains, large industrial companies use robots more frequently than smaller companies. In large companies with at least 250 employees, the proportion is 53 %. In medium-sized companies with 50 to 249 employees, it is 24 %. With a share of 10 %, small companies with 10 to 49 employees use robot technology much less frequently. “Industrial robots are used, for example, for welding, laser cutting and special-purpose painting,” reports the Federal Statistical Office. Service robots would be used for monitoring, transportation and cleaning purposes.

Shoulder to shoulder

The robot works like clockwork and provides impetus to the company's sales. A pat on the back would be appropriate – if it would have meant something to a robot. Simply as a thank you for doing its job in production repetitively with the same precision.

The advantages of the robot in industry are obvious: These include “increased productivity, production reliability, stable processes, ‘closed’ production processes – with a finished part – and linking also in difficult positioning,” explains transfluid CEO Stefanie Flaeper.

However, robots are usually “lone warriors”. They are often separated from humans by a safety fence. But this is likely to change with the use of artificial intelligence in the future, when robot and man work shoulder to shoulder. What would have been considered science fiction years ago, is slowly but surely becoming reality.

Imitating man

The robots will join forces with humans, take on even more tasks, assist their human colleagues to accomplish specific difficult tasks. “The challenge is to be able to use the robots even for very small production volumes, which is only partially possible today,” says Flaeper. If successful, it will open up a new field of activity for robotics. “It would also be interesting if the robot could very precisely mimic the movement of a person in a production process without having to be programmed.”

The potential of an intelligent – and “sensitive” – robot is immeasurable. “Because specified processes which can be simulated digitally and undergo corresponding evaluations are important in Industry 4.0, a robot is superior to humans,” continues Flaeper. Because the robot provides the security that the processes are always the same and could be simulated accordingly. The processes could be represented and checked via a digital twin.

News and trends on robotics will be presented at wire and Tube Düsseldorf from 30 March to 3 April 2020 at Düsseldorf Fairgrounds.

Source and photo: Messe Düsseldorf

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