Singapore Robo Expo Highlights Trends in Automated Manufacturing
Phillip Keane posted on November 13, 2017 |
Are robots going to take our jobs? Only if you work in materials handling.

Automated manufacturing has been with us for a very long time. Richard Arkwright invented the first fully autonomous manufacturing machine way back in 1767 when he patented his Water Frame, allowing automatic water-powered production of textile threads.

We’ve come a long way since the days of the first Industrial Revolution. With each successive revolution, new technologies have added new dimensions of automation (and new fears of job losses to machines), culminating in our current point in time, which we are referring to as the 4th Industrial Revolution.

A cautionary tale of automation (The Ballad of John Henry’s Hammer:  Johnny Cash - Ridin' The Rails: The Great American Train Story)

The latest revolution has contributed advanced control systems, sensors, mobility, cloud computing and big data to the mix, resulting in the promise of robots that can not only replace humans in the workplace, but can replace them very cheaply indeed.

In the past, industrial robots were highly specialized and suited for production lines with a large output (because producing a large output was the only way to cover the capital required to pay for the robots in the first place). Now, thanks to the decreasing cost of the aforementioned technologies, robots are becoming smarter, cheaper and more flexible and can be deployed in a wide range of tasks.

I visited the Singapore International Robo Expo (SIRE 2017) at Marina Bay Sands Conference Centre in Singapore, to get the lowdown on the latest trends in manufacturing robots and to see if I should be worried about losing my job to a machine.

Islands of Automation

The phrase Islands of Automation was coined in the 1980s to highlight the disconnected nature of automated production plants. Even the most advanced production plants today still require humans for feeding lines, inspecting machines and to transfer components between lines. These human tasks are what separate the islands of automation today. And much of the focus of the talks at the conference was directed at how technology can remove these weak links in the chain and help us towards fully automated plants.

The first presentation was from Aldo Zini, President and CEO of American robotics company Aethon, Inc. Zini spoke of how Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are making their way into greater acceptance in manufacturing and how these flexible robots were being utilized in connecting the discrete islands of automation.

For materials handling tasks, Aethon manufactures a series of robots, named “TUG,” which are being employed in moving materials in the manufacturing environment (a task currently performed by warehouse and factory operatives with pump trucks and forklifts). TUG is a robot with 4-wheel steering to allow for omni-directional maneuverability in tight spaces. It can carry loads ranging from small components up to large loads up to 540kg, and is designed to keep the materials flowing to and from the line in a super-efficient manner.

The efficiency stems from how the robot is summoned to its task. It can either be linked to a stock control system and production line via a system such as SAP, meaning that the robot delivers the materials only when needed, or it can be summoned via a static control box or a remote hand unit. So no more line stoppages due to human toilet breaks! TUG works relentlessly and without complaint.

And when it does run low on juice, it can navigate to its charging station to recharge while the main control system sends another TUG to take over - there is no need to worry about loss of productivity due to shift changes.

TUG material handling robot (Image credit: P. Keane)
TUG material handling robot. (Image credit: P. Keane)

Factories are dynamic and cluttered places, so a mobile robot working in a factory environment should have the ability to navigate around randomly placed objects, and also people, without risking property or the health of its flesh-based compatriots. The TUG has a suite of sensors allowing it to navigate seamlessly without risk to man or machine. Zini was keen to point out that this ability to respond to changes in the physical environment makes TUG well-suited to another chaotic environment too: the hospital.  This adaptability is a key feature to robots in Industry 4.0. Robots are becoming generalists, rather than specialists.

You can see a video of TUG below:


As robots begin to be deployed into these dynamically changing environments, consideration needs to be made as to what extent the robots will be interacting with humans. Droids such as TUG will be functioning at a low level of integration, responding to orders from humans as well as avoiding them when they get in the way. At the higher end of the human-robot interactivity spectrum are the COBOTS, a.k.a Collaborative Robots.

COBOTs coming to take our jobs! *grabs pitchfork* (Image credit: Universal Robots)

COBOTs coming to take our jobs! *grabs pitchfork* (Image credit: Universal Robots)

Andrew Pether, Technical Communication Consultant from Singapore-based company Universal Robots gave a presentation on how COBOTS will provide new opportunities for automation to SMEs on a budget, and with a gentle learning curve. Usability plays a large role for robotics in Industry 4.0 - no point buying a robot if you need to pay an MIT mechatronics post-doc to program it, right?

Whereas robots such as TUG will be bridging the feeding/transfer line gaps, COBOTS such as the UR 10 are designed to function on the production/assembly line. They are designed to operate over a range of movements mimicking a human arm, and can be fitted with a range of graspers depending on the items to be manipulated.  These robots are low cost (ranging between 30-50k USD), easy to move around to new locations and are easy to program. They are ideal for repetitive jobs such as assembly tasks. As a result, these kinds of robots are considered as a replacement for low-skilled workers.

COBOT Health and Safety

Putting mobile robots in close proximity to robots introduces a whole new dimension of health and safety requirements. It’s easy to protect human life from a static welding or paint spraying robot - you just fence off that area and don’t allow humans near it while it is working.

Modern day worker, mean stride...the SAWYER robot wants to take your job too.  (Image credit: P. Keane)

Modern day worker, mean stride...the SAWYER robot wants to take your job too. (Image credit: P. Keane)

When the robot can be deployed to any part of the factory and is working within arm’s reach of human workers, it becomes a different ballgame altogether. Pether next talked about of these factors and how regulations are being developed to minimize risk to humans working in the vicinity of COBOTS.

There are currently several ISO standards focused on making robots safer to work around, and work is ongoing to develop further standards. Of relevance to COBOTS are ISO 10218-1&2 (safety of industrial robots), ISO 13849-1 (safety of control systems) and ISO/TS 15066 (safety of collaborative robots).

ISO/TS 15066 relates to specific guidelines relating to power/force/momentum limiting, guidelines for acceptable force/pressure, and pain/injury thresholds for the human body. Many of the robots on display at the expo had visible evidence of the application of these principles having no sharp edges on the robot, and having padded covers to protect from injury. Any robotics engineers thinking of designing a COBOT in future should pay heed to these guidelines and design them into the system at the earliest point.

Final Thoughts

The South East Asian labor market is ripe for automation, largely due to the amount of low skilled manufacturing jobs that are outsourced to the region. Although many plants feature semi-automated production lines, the handling and feeding elements still currently require a human touch, largely because humans are cheap to employ and are generalists who can be deployed from one part of the production line to another, on demand. Conversely, in the past, robots were very good at specialized tasks, were expensive and were largely limited to operating in static locations.

These are the 3 trends that were apparent at SIRE 2017. Robots are becoming cheaper, more mobile, and less specialized and are a lot more user friendly in terms of how they can be programmed for different tasks. Given the low cost of some of these machines (such as the SAWYER robot) which retail for below 50k USD, the price/performance ratio that used to determine whether a task would be performed manually or automatically is becoming increasingly blurred.

If you’re one of these people who worries about robots taking your job from you…now may be a good time to retrain into a robot-proof career. On the positive side, there seem to be a few vacancies in the robotics sector! 

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