Robotic automation is racing ahead

By Steve Sands, Technical Consultant at Festo GB

It is an exciting time in engineering automation. Over the past decade, the pace of innovation has accelerated automation and robotics to meet demands from the sector. Global sales volume of industrial robots has tripled[1] and the industrial robotics market is projected to reach USD 30.8 billion by 2027, from 17.68 billion by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 14.3% during the forecast period[2].

In fact, the latest World Robotics report from the International Federation of Robotics shows an all-time high of 517,385 new industrial robots installed in 2021 in factories around the world. This represents a growth rate of 31% year-on-year and exceeds the pre-pandemic record of robot installation in 2018 by 22%[3]. There are now estimated to be 3.5 million operational robots worldwide.

The tremendous growth in worldwide shipments of industrial robots is largely driven by the automotive and electronics sectors[4]. But there are many other factors currently influencing the market too. Customers we meet talk about labour shortages, rising energy costs, and the need for higher flexibility and productivity. All of this leads to increasing opportunities for automation and robotics.

There is also heavy investment in robotics by global technology giants including Google, Amazon, and Tesla, for example, creating robots not only for warehouses and factories, but also for the consumer environment. Google has made no secret of wanting to build their machine learning technologies into robotics, with its parent company Alphabet establishing a household service robotics company - Everyday Robots – to create mobile robots that performed simple tasks in homes, offices, and factories. Tesla has also revealed its Optimus humanoid robot.

Amazon’s Proteus, a mobile pallet-lifting robot, autonomously moves through facilities alongside human workers, using advanced safety, perception, and navigation technology. These new players in the robotic sector are expected to disrupt the market further and drive the pace of change even more.

Creating world-first pneumatic cobots

To address the needs for increased automation, at Festo we’ve been concentrating on four areas within our robotic development projects.

  • Ultra-lightweight handling systems
  • Reducing moving masses
  • Enhancing safety for automated assistance devices to work alongside humans
  • The use of controlled pneumatics.

The work we have been carrying out in these areas has culminated in our concept cobot – the world’s first pneumatic cobot – which is now being installed and tested in industrial applications.

Our 6-axis industrial cobot offers functions for safe human-robot collaboration and has been designed with simplicity in mind. These development concepts have demonstrated an interesting diversification of drive technology as well as incorporating more simplified programming and teaching modes, and more flexible end-effectors.

Traditionally, pick and place handling tasks have been carried out either by vacuum or by mechanical grippers. Where vacuum is used, contact is made by flexible cups that rely on suction, or in cases where more delicate substrates need to be handled, specialist Bernoulli non-contact grippers have been used. When it comes to mechanical grippers, typically two- or three-fingers are used to handle the product.

However, leaps and bounds have been made in developing gripper technology. Design focus has been on removing the material used, therefore reducing the weight of moving mass, and ultimately cost. Furthermore, the latest high-technology grippers offer more flexible control over position and force using fieldbus protocols. Soft flexible end-effectors are now available that are inspired by nature and wrap around a product like a human hand to handle an object accurately and precisely but with increased agility and dexterity.

Scaling up

Another agent in the change of pace in development has been the global COVID pandemic. The race to develop and design a vaccine to combat the COVID virus, as well as a need to conduct masses of tests quickly and reliably led to a rapid increase in automated processes, at a speed not seen in any other industry.

Initially, sample preparation tests were conducted manually, which involved large numbers of scientists carrying out precise and repetitive tasks, while working under hazardous and PPE-restricted conditions. However, it quickly became apparent that the challenges presented by the COVID virus could be overcome with automated processes.

That’s where cartesian-based robots solutions provided the answer in many of the laboratory applications, as they can be built to many sizes to suit individual requirements. Axes of varying lengths can be combined easily to create robots anywhere from approximately A4 in size, all the way up to gantries that cover an area of more than 30m2. Additionally, these gantries can be fitted with different motors and motion controllers, providing the exact force, speed, and precision needed.

Speed of design

One area where speed has also been of the essence is in delivering designs. We have recently witnessed more pressure for rapid delivery of handling system designs than at any point during the last 30 years in automation. And at Festo we have tackled this head-on, rising to the challenge. Neat innovations in a modular design platform, as well as the development of standardised mounting interfaces, and the wealth of experience in our Core Engineering team, enable customers to now have design concepts for bespoke multi-axis-handing solutions in just a few hours. For example, in one case an urgent request for a health-related application was received late in the day, and we were able to work quickly to provide the customer with 3D drawings by first thing the next morning.

The unprecedented speed of this delivery was made possible thanks to novel design and selection software for cartesian and gantry systems called Handling Guide Online (HGO). The HGO system enables users to input the application parameters such as stroke, length, mass to be moved, and feed forces, and then it provides a range of suggested solutions prioritising them according to the users’ most critical factors. For example, this could be price, power, or safety factors.

Here is where the vision behind Industry 4.0 comes into play. The models created within the HGO contain not only the simulations but also the mechanical design and bill of materials. The 3D CAD drawing is created in numerous formats simultaneously and even includes documentation for electrical wiring and programming I/O allocations. All this data seamlessly transfers into the preferred documentation software such as EPLAN. Kinematic models can be picked up within higher-level simulation packages, enabling the simulation of complete stations. The operating (PLC) program can be pre-written and virtually commissioned: all before any metal is cut or assembled.

What the future holds

The rise of digital technologies and developments in automation has made our ability to adapt easily possible. For example, during the COVID pandemic, when social distancing measures were in place and many people were forced to work from home or in isolation, video conferencing became standard practice.

These digital technologies have also supported engineers and enabled them to work more efficiently and progress their projects more quickly. Prior to the pandemic, face-to-face consultations took place between designers and suppliers. However, remote consultation has become the norm and is typically faster than site visits. Furthermore, the increased access to free-of-charge and easy-to-use software is allowing designers to specify many handling systems themselves.

With faster online services ultimately providing many benefits and helping engineers meet their needs, there’s no turning back. We have got used to a new way of working, which is here to stay and we are well-placed to support the increased demand for automation and robotics.