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The promise of robots.

Today's state-of-the-art robot is far different from the images conveyed by science fiction writers and popularized in movies and television series. In fact, iin today's industrial community, it's difficult getting companies, governments, and standards organizations to precisely agree on what a robot is.

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning drugdgery--perhaps because robots are especially well-suited for doing jobs too boring, difficult, or dangerous for people. In any case, it wasn't until 1990 that representatives from 25 governmentss of the world agreed on just what constitutes a robot. Key words in the definition are "reprogrammable", "multifunctional", and "variably programmed motions for a variety of tasks." Whether or not terms like these nail it down for you, most people in industry today know a robot when they see one. Also, words such as "reprogrammable", "variably", and "variety" give us some insight into where future advances in the robotics industry are likely to occur.

As we approach the year 2000, it is clear that advances are coming in the areas of integration, controls, sensors, and programming. And while it is almost certain that you won't soon be approached by a humanoid-looking robot asking to be taken to your leader, it's also clear that robots are rapidly becoming more versatile, more easily integrated with other automation, and more user-friendly.

The industry

Today's robotics industry is alive, well, and growing rapidly. At an ABB Robotics press conference last year, Donald L. Vincent, president of the Robotics Institute of America (RIA), emphatically stated that the robotics industry's upturn in 1988 and record sales in 1989 can be maintained well into the 1990s and beyond.

Joining Mr Vincent in the prediction is Market Intelligence Research Corp (MIRC), which just recently release its study, Resurgence of Robots in the U S. In the study, MIRC projects 1997 revenues for the total marketplace to exceed $1.4 billion, nearly tripling 1990's total revenues.

Fueling that growth is a demand for robots to do more than ever before. Until just recently, automotivee and aerospace were the leading markets for robotic sales in the United States. However, RIA estimates that there are 70,000 potential new customers in the United States, since 90% have yet to install their first robot. In hazardous jobs alone, there are 200,000 potential applications for robot technology.

According to Mr Vincent: "Key user industries beyond manufacturing include textile, health care, and pharmaceutical. Robots are being tested to do sewing in the garment industry. In Japan's construction industry, robots are being used to finish cement floors; others climb brick walls to inspect for flaws." During the current recession, when automotive investment has lessened, robotics companies are successfully diversifying their customer base. For example, new orders are coming from the electronics, medical, and service industries.

Shortages of skilled labor are also causing companies to embrace robotics. According to U S Department of Commerce's U S Industrial Outlooking 1991, labor shortages are forcing metalworking firms to invest in more productive equipment and methods. In numerous instances, manufacturers are substituting robotics for skilled labor or utilizing robots to relieve skilled labor from performing mundane functions. Furthermore, strict Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards on workplace hazards will spur demand as more employers substitute robots for employees presently working in hazardous environments.

According to Robert Brown, president of ABB Robotics Inc, "one big factor in the increasing popularity of robots is that the cost of labor keeps going up 4% to 6% a year, while the cost of robotic solutions keeps going down 4% to 5% per year. Features that used to be optional extra s a year ago are now included in the same base price. Equipment that look three years to pay off three years ago can now be paid off in two years. Three years from now, it's going to take only one year to pay off in labor savings alone, not to mention the quality savings, the elimination of hazardous environment problems, and the manufacturing repeatability savings."

Manufacturing, however, is not the only industry experiencing labor shortages. According to Mr Brown, "we are moving from the Baby-Boom generation to a Baby-Bust generation and are starting to see labor shortages in food processing and textiles. You can't find people today to clean chicken and fish anymore."

Robotic integration

All of the people we spoke to in preparation of this article broadly agree that as market applications expand, the integration of robots with other automation equipment will hinge on control advances. There will be increased emphasis on integrating cell controllers with robot, vision, material handling, and inspection controllers.

"We're already seeing the integration of cell controller and robot controller with the new controllers coming on the market," says Jeff Mainville, product manufacturing manager--Robotics at Miller Electric Mfg Co.

Integration is already bringing down to cost of robotics, according to GAry J Rutledge, vice president product development at GMFanuc Robotics. "In the early 1980s, a vision system and a robot controller were about the same size and cost. Integration of the two systems to make them function together added an additional 40% to the cost of systems engineering. Today, a world-class robot only requires two or three cards in its backplane and a camera to become a sighted robot. Software systems to handle the added functionality are already in place. The cost of such systems in the 1990s will only be 20% of what they were five to ten years ago.

"The robot of the 199s will not only easily integrate vision, but will control other moving servo-controlled devices in the cell such as turntables and support robots, interface with PLCs that connect lines of cells, communicate data and programs with host computers, monitor relays and safety devices in the cell, and monitor analog and digital signals that gve information on process status and quality while logging statistical data for process analysis. Such an expansion of the robot's control capability will make it less of a tool and more of a tradesman effectively operating a multipurpose work cell."

Will all control functions within a cell be turned over to one super controller, or will increased emphasis be placed on control interoperability? "Control of automation equipment requires an intimate relationship with the design and engineering of the hardware, whether it's a robot, lathe, or a coordinate measuring machine," says Scott Baldwin, manager sales & marketing, Kawasaki Robotics (USA). "For this reason, I believe we'll always see hardware manufacturers supplying proprietary controls. What we will probably see, though, is control platforms becoming more common. Computer manufacturers will build-in interfaces to the other plant equipment, such as vision, cell controllers, conveyors, presses, etc. Giving robots, CMMs, or machine tools the ability to control entire small cell as an option will happen and is happening. But one controller to control everything in a large cell probably won't happen in the foreseeable future."

While a super controller--one controller responsible for an entire cell--may be some time off in the future, single-source responsibility for everything that goes on in the cell is not. Customers are looking for solutions not products, and, when something goes wrong in a cell, they want to turn to one source for answers to their problems. "Customers want robots integrated into a system," says Norman Fender, executive vice president, ABB Graco Products. "When they have problems, they want to be able to call you back and have you fix tham. So systems integration, service, and the engineering capability are all a part of being successful in cell integration."

Control advances

Artificial intelligence in the form of expert systems, neural nets combined with computer advances in the form of faster central processing units (CPUs), and the addition of co-processors, plus true preemptive multitasking operating systems and parallel processing, should enable controllers to enhance robot potential dramatically.

Expert systems will enhance a robot's decision-making capability, enabling them to respond to a variety of conditions. Neural nets will vastly simplify programming by enabling robots to "learn" a procedure through repetition, rather than programming. These capabilities, however, require a great deal of computer processing power to operate in realt time with all of the concurrent data crunching that will be necessary. Thus, faster CPUs, co-processors, preemptive multitasking, and afforable parallel processing will be necessary to take advantage of these emerging sciences.

"Control and sensor advances combined with artificial intelligence or fuzzy logic will lead robots into more traditional manual operations," says Mr Manville. According to Mr Rutledge, "Artificial intelligence, expert systems, and neural nets are all advancing technologies that increase the amount of knowledge stored within a robot and the decision-making capability to use that knowledge. As these capabilities are increased in future robots, the ability to optimize complex processes will emerge. Robots will receive a wide variety of information from sensors and other sources and effectively integrate this data with past history to generate the best possible outcome in uncontrolled or poorly defined situations."

Sensor advances

How will sensor advances, particularly vision and touch (pressure sensitive) sensors, enable robots to interact better with and respond more rapidly kto elements in their environment, thus improving flexibility and performance? "Two areas come to mind immediately," says Mr Baldwin. "Less time for processing the information provided by these sensors and less tooling/fixturing required to precisely locate parts. By using improved sensors, robots can find parts that are roughly located (less fixturing), perform the process task with adaptive tools (one tool may be able to do the job of several if it can adapt to changing conditions), and still meet cycle times (by being able to quickly or simultaneously process the sensor information)."

Mr Rutledge agrees that, "Fixturing will be reduced and more general purpose grippers will be usable. Robots will more easily handle process variations, perhaps taking extra steps to bring out-of-tolerance parts back into line."

Programming obstacles

Every robot supplier we interviewed for this story mentioned programming requirements and a lack of user friendliness as major obstacles to sales outside the automotive and aerospace industries. "The average Mom & Pop shop does not have an extensive engineering staff to assist with the design, integration and programming of robotic systems," says Mr Rutledge. "Future robots will have more user friendly interfaces for programming because much of the needed process knowledge will com with the robot. The user will answer questions and pick alternatives from a menu in order to define the work to be accomplished. Communicating in familiar process language, the robot will seem much easier to apply to a task."

Easier-to-use controls and simpler programmingn seem to be the key to improving robot sales to smaller companies. "The robot controls will have to evolve into a more consumer-oriented product," says Mr Baldwin. "Most small-to-medium-sized manufacturers rely on themselves to survive rather than their suppliers. They want to know how to use, maintain, and fix the equipment they buy. If that equipment is too industrialized and unfamiliar, they will continue to shy away."

Help is on the way, however, as several software manufacturers address the programmingn issue. For example, at Westec 92 the Buran Company exhibited ROBOMAX, a highly developed robot-workcell design, simulation, and off-line programming system. The program is totally AutoCad-based and does not require expensive workstations. Like AutoCad, the program runs on 386 and 486-based computers and uses all AutoCade features for surface modeling, 3D wireframe, and solid modeling, and allows easy design file transfer and database access. The software is aimed at customers requiring robotic arc and spot welding off-line control programs.

Today, in the advanced laboratories in the United States, you can observe a process where CAD drawings are computer-analyzed to develop an assembly sequence. Fixtures to hold the various parts are automatically designed to match the assembly plan. Robot programs are then automatically written to accomplish assembly with the fixtures and cell that were designed. As of now, this capability handles simple parts when operated by multiple PHDs. One can expect to see this capability emerging commercially for industrial applications in the next five to ten years.

For more informationn on companies mentioned in this article, circle the appropriate numbers below:
ABB Robotics circle 311
The Buran Co circle 312
GMFanuc circle 313
ISI Robotics circle 314

Kawaski Robotics circle 315
MIRC USA circle 316
Miller Electric circle 317

Material handling robots

Machine-tool tending systems such as those manufactured by ISI Robotics have improved the productivity of CNC turning centers. In the application shown, a loader with two robotic grippers are used to load and unload the machine. In operation, the loader moves to have its top gripper pick up a part from the top infeed chute, while its bottom gripper drops off a finished part in the unload chute.

Versatile robots

The EX/XT family of robots from Kawasaki are AC servo-driven, six-axis robots designed for spot welding, material handling, palletizing, and sealing. Equipped with a 32-bit microprocessor and floating decimal point coprocessor, the controller uses the highlevel AS programming interpreter language, which offers users an abudance of robot and other programming statements.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Stovicek, Donald R.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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