The word “automation” comes from the Greek word “αὐτός” (autos), which means “self,” and the Latin word “motio”, (movement).
So, self-movement. Exactly what industry 4.0 is pushing.
Performance without human intervention.
This isn’t exactly a “brand new” idea. Automation has been in use for several decades (Industrial Revolution, steam-powered machines, etc).
However, the past few years have really seen a shift from motion-based to mission-based.
Motion-based approaches to robotics typically focus on the development of algorithms and systems that enable robots to move and navigate through their environment, often with a particular emphasis on achieving smooth, efficient, and agile motion.
Mission-based approaches, on the other hand, focus more on the specific tasks or missions that a robot is designed to perform. These approaches may involve the development of specialized hardware, software, and other technologies that enable robots to perform a wide range of tasks and missions, from manufacturing and assembly to search and rescue to exploration and scientific research.
Indeed, in the very close past, robots could only function if the product was presented to the machine in the exact same way, at a very specific time, time and again. Endless repeatable motion to amortize the cost of building the automation process in the first place. Very useful if the plan is to build the exact same things a million times over many years, where ROI can also take years. Because, again, custom technology is notoriously Not Cheap™.
And once its use has passed, or if the recipe changes, Industrial Robot faces its doom.
We’ll remember that Industrial Robots are Not Cheap™ but if you’re going to be doing the same exact thing for years on end, it might be a good choice. Industrial Robot is your great great great great grandmother’s pot-pie recipe, unchanged since 1770. Nothing if not reliable.
The switch has happened as machines are now built with axes and with brains computer systems that allows them to know where they are in space and time, where the product they need to attend to is, and how to accomplish the mission they are given (whichever it may be).
The aim is to make these machines more precise, flexible and easy to use as we move forward. What’s more, the revolution of no-code means that some robots allow you to set up a robot without the need to become a robotics engineer to code instructions in your robot.
Now, companies are aiming to make them even smarter. AI smart.
And some are succeeding, mostly using robotic arms, which mimic the movements of a human arm. They are as human arms are: flexible, precise, and controlled. They can manipulate, assemble, paint, and more. Their uses are as infinite as humans are creative. They do have to be heavily programmed to function and fulfil their purposes, but once that hurdle’s gone, imagination is the limit! Equip them with sensors or 3D vision cameras, and let them go to town on complex tasks.
They are also (Hurray!) mostly affordable, so their ROI tends to be more attractive. They’re small(er), light(er), and can easily be reprogrammed if their original use changes.
While they truly are phenomenal tools, robotic arms are only part of the solution. They can be highly effective at performing the tasks they were programmed for, but they are not a complete solution on their own. They cannot (yet) transport raw materials or finished products, handle tasks such as packaging or labelling, or perform the type of action other Industrial Robots have been doing for years.
We’ll remember that Robot Arms are super versatile, fun, cheap(ish), and popular; we love that for them. But like with all Popular Things™, they’re high-maintenance and require much tender, sweet-nothing programming to operate. The end goal is to have one robot capable of being reprogrammed, that doesn’t need to be “coded”, and that is precise. Precise as it pertains to the sheer size (think small!), the dexterity of the robot and its various uses. One robot for several tasks. The Bruch Almighty of robotics.
Automation in The Present
A few numbers to stay in the Know
The use of automation is increasing, driven by advances in technology and the need for businesses to stay competitive.
🤖 Robots sold per year data and projection
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the global market for industrial robots reached a record high in 2020, with the sale of 438,000 units. This represents a growth of 13% compared to the previous year. The IFR projects that the market for industrial robots will continue to grow in the coming years, with an estimated 573,000 units to be sold in 2025. Please note that these numbers only include industrial robots (not service robots or consumer robots).
👨🏭 Unfulfilled jobs in 2030 due to automation
A report from the World Economic Forum estimates that 85 million jobs could be displaced by automation by 2025, while an estimated 375 million jobs may be at risk of being automated by 2030. Since automation is approaching at crushing speed, becoming a Very Competent Operator™ likely won’t beat the machine that will be used to replace them. However, it is more nuanced than this, as it will depend on the specific industries and job tasks that are most affected by automation. Labour shortages are looming ahead. In manufacturing, 55% of job openings remain unfilled.
And while automation is taking jobs in the short-term, it’s also creating new, arguably more interesting ones to replace them. Programming, robotics, and data analysis are all fields in which Very Competent Operators™ are now being trained in, overseeing several robots that used to do their jobs, amongst other tasks.
It is important for companies and workers to be aware of these potential impacts and to work together to ensure that automation is implemented in a way that benefits everyone.
While automation offers many benefits, it is important to recognize that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and different manufacturers may benefit from different types of automation depending on their specific needs and operations.
With that said, the market is open for innovation and companies are popping up left, right and center to generate the best type of tools to answer the wide array of questions being asked by automation in manufacturing.
Let’s dive in.
What is Automation?
Let’s open that can of worms, shall we?
🦿 The added value of automation
- It’s useful as it can unburden workers from repetitive and low value-added tasks.
- Seeing as it is machine-operated, its decision is squarely determined by the program running through it, hence reducing the potential for human error. Very low margin for error means overall improved quality.
- We are also looking at improved productivity by allowing machines to operate continuously, no need for breaks or rest, as long as there is a power source.
⏳ A short (generalised) timeline. (Really, just the main events)
100 years ago
Automated machines started being used for continuous processes such as melting, stamping, injecting, filling, and mixing. (These processes involve the transformation of raw materials into a finished product through a series of steps, so machines can perform these steps with a high degree of consistency and accuracy.)
50 years ago
Their better counterpart, Industrial robots, were born out of FANUC, KUKA, ABB (to name but a few). These robots reigned unconquered for a long time. They are most often used in cells, where they are dedicated to performing a specific task or set of tasks within a defined area.
🏭 Characteristic that differentiates industrial robots
- Number of axes (which determines their flexibility and range of motion)
- Robots with more axes are generally more flexible and can perform a wider range of tasks, but they may be slower than robots with fewer axes.
- Payload capacity (the weight they can lift and manipulate)
- Speed (how fast they can move and manipulate objects)
- Repeatability (how accurately they can repeat the same movements)
These capabilities can vary depending on the specific design and purpose of the robot, and can be customised to meet the needs of the application.
So… in the same way humans learn the Macarena, industrial robots are taught movement in a set pattern they can repeat endlessly.
⚠️ The word “automation” doesn’t only refer to the robots
Automation is not limited to machines and robots.
It includes the systems and processes that enable their use, namely:
- Moving lines (conveyor systems that transport materials or products through the production process)
- Jigs and fixtures (custom-designed tools that hold and position parts or materials for machining or assembly)
- Controllers (computer-based systems that monitor and control the operation of automated equipment).
This whole system makes up the production environment that enables automation.
We’ll remember that though we’ve gone through a Very Accelerated Timeline™ of industrialisation (but you should have been taught it in school, so we’ll assume you can fill out the rest), the main take is that there have been robots a-plenty for a century, and that each decade brings about some new revolutionary way to use them. Axes are arguably the greatest break-through made in the recent decade.
👮♀️ Robot containment
If it had not yet been clear, let’s reiterate the fact that industrial robots are usually extraordinarily strong, big and powerful. A right Hulk, without the brain to match.
In order to avoid unfortunate events, industrial robots are often used in “cells,” which are enclosed work areas where they can perform tasks without coming into contact with humans.
We’ll remember that industrial robots are often put in robot prison to ensure everyone’s safety.
🦾 The New Kid on the Block
In recent years, there is one robot that has been created and that doesn’t necessarily need jail-time. Cobot, we’re looking at you. Collaborative robots are designed to work alongside humans in a shared workspace (no robot prison for them) without the need for special safety measures. Kuka Robotics, one of the leading manufacturers of industrial robots, released its first cobot, the LBR 3, in 2004. Universal Robots, another leading manufacturer, released its first cobot, the UR5, in 2008, and has since released several other cobots, including the UR10 and the UR3.
👀 What does a Cobot look like?
- Equipped with sensors
- Safety features (such as force-feedback sensors that prevent them from injuring their human colleagues)
- Easier to program (can therefore be used flexibly)
These advantages makes cobots well-suited for tasks that require a high degree of collaboration or interaction with humans, such as assembly, inspection, and testing (manufacturing), but also in healthcare and search, or to tighten screws or pack boxes.
In recent years, companies have been inventive in creating more and more tools to allow cobots to adapt to their environment and respond to changes in real time. 3D vision, sensory touch, etc.
We’ll remember that cobots have the flexibility that industrial robots cruelly lack, and the sense (literally) not to accidentally hurt anyone.
Who Benefits from Automation ?
Automation removes the need for human intervention. Instead, technology is used to teach a machine to perform a certain task.
Errors still do happen (machines do not have brains and therefore can malfunction, just as humans do) and operators’ previous functions often shift from doing the task to monitoring several machines that do the tasks for them. In fact, in one of the largest automation factory I recently visited, 6 operators were used in a field of roughly 50 robots.
When automation is thought through and correctly implemented, it can be quite a revolution.
There are — for now — limits to the madness.
In tried and tested factories, where the same, or nearly the same products (think: cars that mostly are built from the same parts, but one has an open roof, the other doesn’t) need to be mass-produced, it’s the Gold Rush and everyone’s hoping to get rich from ROI. Indeed, as the product is standardised from start to finish, one can easily break down the specific steps and automate each one in a set progression. This’ll ensure the same quality across the board, and can yield some spectacular profit over time.
These tries and tested companies have used robots for years and will continue to do so, simply because their business models not only allows and enables, but is strengthened by the use of automation, allowing them to stay competitive in global markets by enabling them to produce goods more quickly and at a lower cost.
To name a few:
🚗 Automotive & 🔌 Electronics
Robots may be used to assemble products amongst other things.
Robots may help lay bricks or pave roadways. Recently, 3D printing has become an automation style used as well.
📦 Delivery & 🏢 Warehousing
Robots may use automated systems to organise, identify and transport goods within the warehouse.
🍔 Food service
Robots may be used to package and label products, as well as to perform tasks such as mixing and cooking.
💊 Health care & 🔬 Pharmaceuticals
Robots may be used use automation to perform tasks such as sorting and distributing medication, as well as to assist with surgical procedures.
Robots may be used to perform tasks such as inventory management and customer service (with mitigated results).
But industries and products were not all created equals.
As such, manufacturers of high-mix and low-volume goods (HMLV) have historically had a hard time implementing automation. In some cases, automation can also allow HMLV companies to enter new markets or expand their operations by enabling them to produce goods more quickly and at a lower cost. But it can still be quite costly. In such cases, the benefits of automation may be less (or much less) noticeable.
We’ll remember that automation is Not The Answer To All Things™ (yet) and we humans have not yet managed to make ourselves completely irrelevant. There are times were only humans can do the job humans do.
Discrete manufacturing processes refer to the production of distinct, individual items, as opposed to continuous processes (production of a constant flow of materials/products), many of which can be automated using cobots. There are several kinds:
Moving materials or products between different locations or machines, such as loading and unloading parts onto a conveyor belt or into a machine.
Fitting together parts to create a finished product, such as welding, gluing, or screwing components together.
Putting the final touches on a product, such as sanding, polishing, deburring (removing burrs or sharp edges), or painting.
🧪 Non-destructive testing
Testing the quality or integrity of a product without damaging it, such as leak testing or quality control checks.
💵 Added complexity = Added Costs
Yes, the complexity of the process and the cost of automation can vary widely depending on the specific requirements of the application. But as a general rule of thumb, the more complex the system, the more costly it’s bound to become.
Simple processes are relatively straightforward to automate.
Complex processes, on the other hand, usually require more advanced technology and expertise to reach an efficient solution.
Each industry operates with its own sets of processes, complexities, available resources, and more.
Some available tech nowadays can be bought off-the-shelf, but more often, we will see use cases where custom technology needs to be developed.
Anything unique is valuable. In some cases it’s diamonds or the world’s most expensive coffee, or a unique piece of Art. In some other cases, it’s a company that decides to automise a very specific product in a way that no one has done before. Anything that’s never been done before will require extensive cash output. Custom technology is notoriously Not Cheap™.
We’ll remember that every company is a snow-flake. Unique. Beautiful. Which makes it extremely hard to streamline anything and offer an off-the-shelf solution.
Can Automation be used to Manufacture a whole product?
Well, sort of.
You can automate cutting, welding, painting, assembly, the use of software to control and monitor the production process, and the use of conveyor systems to transport materials and finished products.
However, not all tasks involved in manufacturing a product can be automated. Some tasks, such as design and product development, may require human input and creativity. And while automation can improve the efficiency and consistency of the manufacturing process, it is not always the most cost-effective solution, especially for small-scale or custom manufacturing.
But it is coming.
Taken straight from a horror movie, Dark Factories are popping up all over the world. Why dark? Well, since the only presence on site are robots and machines, and since robots and machines don’t need eyes because they don’t need to see… there is no need for any light to even be installed. A bit grim, we’ll give you that.
We’ll remember that if you currently have a small business selling homemade soap, automation may not be the best idea just yet. A bar soap cutter will do the trick. However, if you’re planning on dethroning Tesla, then perhaps a quick look at automation processes would do you good.
A Very Generalised Overlook
Automation has taken the world by storm for several years now, and only continues to progress, becoming increasingly common in all kinds of industries.
The upsides: We’re looking at increased productivity and efficiency, improved accuracy and consistency, the ability to perform tasks that are too dangerous, difficult, or repetitive for humans to do, a great ROI, and increased market competitivity.
The downsides: We’re facing job losses, displaced operators, expensive implementation, the sad sad significant upfront investment in both tech andinfrastructure, as well as the potential for malfunction.
But as we move forward into the future, automation is likely to involve greater flexibility and adaptability, as manufacturers seek to reduce the costs of automation and respond to changing market demands. Cobots are expected to play a significant role in this trend, as they are designed to be flexible and adaptable, and can work safely alongside humans.
But the shift from motion to mission-based is bound to be more impactful still.
Overall, this shift towards mission-based approaches reflects a growing recognition of the importance of developing robots that can perform a wide range of tasks and missions in a variety of different environments, and that are able to adapt and learn from their experiences in order to improve their performance over time.
Cheers to that !