Industrial robots are more accessible and affordable than ever before. . .
Industrial robots are robots that carry out assembly applications. Traditional industrial robots have been readily applied in manufacturing and electronics, but kitted out with sensors and Artificial Intelligence, their influence is set to grow. Last year, Loup Ventures predicted that the industrial robotics market would reach $33.8bn by 2025, almost tripling in size since 2016. You don’t have to rely on researchers to understand that installing industrial robots makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. However, the robots that are building machinery, packing deliveries and flipping burgers today are very different from their predecessors. What major changes have happened in the market, and how will they affect future adoption?
1. Industrial robots in the warehouse
For big manufacturing operations like those carried out at the factories of automakers, applying intelligent industrial robots has seemed like a no brainer. Now, big retailers are continuing to adopt the same approach in their warehouses. It will probably come as no surprise that Amazon has installed industrial robots to streamline picking and packing processes. As of last year, the company has a reported 45,000 robots working across 20 facilities. Online supermarket Ocado uses industrial robots for their own deliveries, but also wants to supply robotic warehouses to other retailers.
2. Industrial robots face the consumer
As well as working behind the scenes on factory floors, industrial robots are now clearly visible to consumers. The fast food industry, for example, has Flippy, a burger flipping machine created by Miso Robotics, it has already been trialled by US fast food chain CaliBurger. By bringing industrial robot workers to the front line of customer services, businesses are familiarising consumers with the concept of robots as workers. This is likely to encourage wider societal adoption such as domestic and educational robots. But in order to be able to handle the nuances of human interaction, whether that be with a customer or a coworker, industrial robots have had to become collaborative.
3. The rise of collaborative robots
Collaborative robots are a different breed of industrial robot that are specifically designed to work alongside human employees across supply chains. Collaborative robots have been around for years, but in 2016 only made up three per cent of all industrial robot sales. Thanks to advancements in AI, standardised software and reduced cost, this is expected to rise to 34 per cent by 2025. The adoption of industrial robots has been held back by expensive hardware, complex software and potential risk to human workers. Collaborative robots, on the other mechanical hand, are cheaper on face value, built with human cooperation in mind, and therefore easier to programme. This has made the technology more accessible to companies without mammoth resources.
4. Soft robots
An important phenomenon in the robotics sphere has been the development of ‘soft robots’. As the name implies, these bots are far removed from the clunky metallic bots tethered to production lines. Developments in materials science and 3D printing has allowed teams to make robots using silicone and other pliable alternatives. Researchers at the University of California San Diego, for example, 3D printed a robot with four hollow legs, making it lighter and more manoeuvrable. The goal of creating soft robots is to expand what bots can do in real world environments. This, in turn, will improve the capabilities of industrial robots. A soft industrial robot could be used for industrial applications that must be done in a turbulent environment or require delicate handling.
5. Training robots with VR
The main obstacles to industrial robot installation include the time and expertise needed to teach them. OpenAI and Embodied Intelligence are two companies working to change this with Virtual Reality robot training. In virtual environments, human teleoperators perform actions that the robot then copies, eventually applying the knowledge in real life. Imitation learning, as the technique is called, enables a single robot to absorb numerous skills in a low cost, low to no risk environment. Guided by machine learning algorithms, the robot can mimic the human exactly. Additionally, this will be helped by the standardisation of software, allowing those without an advanced knowledge of coding to command intelligent machines to carry out tasks. Rethinking how robots are trained will consequently impact both the quality and quantity of what they can do.
The ability to easily train collaborative, imaginatively designed robots for industrial applications has redefined what we think of as industrial robots. Technological advancements in AI, materials science, and innovative programming solutions have complemented the rise of robots. Together, these developments provide a catalyst for mass adoption – and not just in the warehouses and stores of big businesses. Ease of set up and lower costs will also allow SMEs to benefit from the new breed of industrial bot. As these robots gain skills, traditional industrial models will ultimately be replaced by more intelligent, more applicable alternatives.