The Fascinating Evolution of Industrial Robots
Thu, April 22, 2021

The Fascinating Evolution of Industrial Robots

The production floor has rapidly changed with the advent of robotics, AI, and automation, enhancing the productivity of day-to-day operations in manufacturing / Photo by: Jenson via Shutterstock

 

The production floor has rapidly changed with the advent of robotics, AI, and automation, enhancing the productivity of day-to-day operations in manufacturing, said robotics and AI news platform Robotics Business Review. In recent decades, automation has been a central competitive factor for factories all over the globe along with the growing use of industrial robots, wrote Alex Misiti of Electronics Online, an electronics media channel. 

For example, the industrial robotics market in North America grew 7.2% from the first half of 2019, with North American companies purchasing 16,488 industrial robot units, valued at $869 million, according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and Steve Crowe of The Robot Review, a news site dedicated to innovations in robotics and intelligent systems. 

One of the key drivers in the advancement of robotics is the convergence of technological innovations and communication technologies, leading to an expansion in applications such as wireless interface in industrial robotics. 

The Genesis of Industrial Robotics 

Industrial robots are usually discussed in the context of 21st-century innovations, but did you know that robots date further back into the 1950s? George Devol created the first industrial robot. The robot is a two-ton device that autonomously transferred objects to different places using hydraulic actuators. In the early 1960s, robots were first used commercially on assembly lines, with most units having hydraulic or pneumatic arms and being mostly used for heavy lifting. Even if the devices had limited programmability, they played a significant role in boosting production in manufacturing factories, setting the standards for the development of modern robotics. 

The need for automation of labor-intensive tasks in manufacturing grew in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hence, the focus shifted from heavy lifting to materials handling and precision work, resulting in the development of “smaller electric robots advanced controls, microprocessors, miniaturized motors, gyros, and servos.” These robots were perfect for light assembly tasks like tightening bolts and nuts. 

The capabilities of robots then expanded to include certain processes such as material transferring, painting, and arc welding by the late 1970s. This was also the period when robots were deployed in manufacturing facilities to accomplish dangerous tasks. In steel mills, they were used to move parts and materials in inhospitable environments, thereby improving safety and workforce productivity by allowing skilled laborers to focus on more important manufacturing operations. 

The mid-1980s marked a period of “increased interest and excitement in robotics.” Since robots were seen as the “machines of the future,” engineers started to support industrial development and strive for a more competitive production floor. The 1980s laid the foundation of modern industrial robots, as units were incorporated with advanced sensors and machine vision systems.

Along with the reduced cost in microprocessors and computer hardware, this led to a profound transformation in the capabilities of industrial robots. Industrial robots used precision force sensors and lasers to “detect and follow manufacturing components along assembly lines.”

The lasers and sensors enabled the robots to gain a human-like sense of sight and touch, revolutionizing the way they interact with the industrial environment. Hence, robots metamorphosized from being simple mechanical devices to more elaborate and complex units possessing “limited intelligence.” 

Industrial robots used precision force sensors and lasers to “detect and follow manufacturing components along assembly lines” / Photo by: Factory_Easy via Shutterstock

 

Industrial Robots Today 

Developments in industrial robotics were driven by advancements in software and merging fields such as AI and machine learning since the early 2000s. Such advancements further pushed the capabilities of industrial robots, granting them the ability to learn, decide, follow orders, make decisions, and more. For example, automatic speech recognition (ASR) can be used to control industrial robots using your voice by converting speech into text. 

Voice control utilizes a graphic user interface (GUI) with a microphone to state commands and a display to view feedback. The speech signal will be captured and converted into text, matching it with pre-programmed text commands by the processor. Voice control in industrial robots uses a defined set of commands starting with a “trigger” word. For instance, you can say “Robot one” to activate speech recognition. The robot then replies by sending the text “Yes, master.”  

Another example is utilizing GUI to control the unit using images displayed on the device’s screen. The camera— which is mounted on the robot— captures the images and transmits them to the user. The benefits of GUI is making human-robot interactions more intuitive and engaging. However, the disadvantage of GUI is it has complex and contradicting graphical interfaces, requiring a user to learn complicated commands, as well as the hardware and software of the robot to operate.

On the other hand, a gesture-based interface allows users to control robots using hand gestures, where an arm direction signifies a specific movement. The gesture interface requires the unit and the human to be in the same place, but despite it being the easiest of all interfaces, it is also the most exhausting for humans. 

The Future of Industrial Robots 

We will get to see more industrial robots relying on data processing technologies, IoT, and cyber-physical system (CPS) acting as neural networks in the factory. Future advancements will facilitate interconnectivity between robots and factory equipment through sensors, smart control systems, and more. 

Industrial robots have come a long way from units with limited capabilities to machines mimicking human intelligence. Some advantages include improving worker safety and bolstering productivity. Robots will be the colleagues of the future, and they will become smarter as technology advances.