Will the Rise of Robotics Kill the Machine Tool Industry?
Kagan Pittman posted on August 19, 2016 |
The barriers disappear, robots and humans work together in the future in all stages of the product development process: Or the vision at least can be experienced in the research factory ARENA2036, where researchers from science and business work together. (Image courtesy: Universität Stuttgart/Storz media agency)
The barriers disappear, robots and humans work together in the future in all stages of the product development process: Or the vision at least can be experienced in the research factory ARENA2036, where researchers from science and business work together. (Image courtesy: Universität Stuttgart/Storz media agency)

Robots are invading workforces across the globe.

Our mechanical friends are finding themselves further integrated with machine tools and other automation systems to create “plug-and-play” modules with new control architectures in an effort to automate low-skill repetitive tasks, or ones that present significant risk of injury.

But how is robotic automation effecting industries like machine tooling? Can robots achieve a new level quality and quantity in mass production applications? How is this new technology going to effect companies slow to adopt robotic automation?

"The machine tool is increasingly converging with the robot, they no longer stand side by side as separate components." Professor Dr.-Ing. Thomas Bauernhansl, Head of IFF, Uni Stuttgart and Fraunhofer IPA. (Image: Fraunhofer-IPA)

Professor Dr. -Ing. Thomas Bauernhansl, director of the Institute of Industrial Manufacturing (IFF) at Universität Stuttgart in Germany, is encouraging experts to take these developments seriously and to discuss them at events like the upcoming AMB, an international exhibition for metal working in Stuttgart.

Below, Professor Bauernhansl opens the stage for further discussion on why robotic automation is on the rise, how robotics effects the industry of machine tools and why more manufacturers need to investigate robotics for their own applications:

  • Are robots becoming competitors to machine tools?

A robot still cannot replace the machine tool. The robot can only assume non-core processes of the machine. Examples include handling activities, or supporting and accompanying the employee who operates the machine. Typical tasks are deburring, positioning or changing workpieces. But the robot will not do the actual machining or metal cutting, because it doesn't possess the required accuracy or dynamics. In the future, however, the transition between machine tool and portal robot could become more fluid. Its flexibility and the extremely advanced possibilities of programming speak in favour of robots. The machine tool is increasingly converging with the robot, they no longer stand side by side as separate components.

  • How is automation technology in the field of machine tools generally developing?

We are noticing that the machine tool competence among automation manufacturers is increasing. They are optimising the layout and system design. The topic of flexibility plays a huge role, i.e. the question of scalability from manual to semi-automated to fully automated and vice-versa. This restricts the integrative approach again somewhat. Components of machine tools must be able to be replaced quickly. For instance, integrating robots or palletising systems quickly and also removing them again. It is not only about versatility and adaptability, but also about efficiency, i.e. the topic of plug-and-produce by the machine operator.

  • The control technology also has to be adapted. What changes will we experience here?

The classic control technology of the machine tool is heading towards plug-and-produce. Hard-wired hardware-based NC systems no longer have a future. For plug-and-produce the respective components need to be more intelligent, i.e. in the robot arm, gripper, spindle, feed conveyor, etc. These autonomous systems have their own microcontrollers and register on a platform via an interface. They communicate what services they provide, and the employee at the machine can then configure it to a smart workflow. With the ever-increasing bandwidth and latency of the networks, one can outsource services from the machine tool and offer them, for example, on cloud-based platforms. In the end only a few tasks such as security are still performed locally. Functionality as a service is a big trend.

  • How does automation technology deal with diverse requirements due on the one hand to mass production, and on the other to increasing individualisation of the products?

There will always be mass production, but increasingly the customised product, which is adapted to the individual needs of the customer. The automation of mass production is very advanced. Here it is not only about making the processes more robust through the clever use of data and retrieving the very last percentage. In contrast, customisation demands a high degree of flexibility, i.e. the ability to convert within seconds or even during the process. These topics require a different type of automation technology with corresponding adaptability and versatility, perhaps in the future the ability of independent optimisation in communication with the component.

  • A question which will also be discussed with great controversy at AMB: Where is Germany on an international comparison?

This topic is gaining considerable momentum in the USA, Japan, Korea and now also in China. In Germany we need to take this development seriously and deal with the issue intensively. The surveys are alarming, on the one hand 80 to 90 percent of companies state they are affected by the development, but only between 10 and 20 percent of these companies are giving serious thought to the matter. We have to do more, become more determined and more companies have to get involved in the development. Above all we need to discuss the matter in an opportunistic manner and not only analyse the risks.

AMB 2016 will host discussions on robotics and more at AMB, where over 1,300 exhibitors will display developments for machine tools, measuring systems, robots, industrial software, and more, between Sept. 13-17.

For more information on AMB 2016, visit AMB's website

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