Mouser Electronics: Collaborative robots are transforming industry

For several generations, industry has been well served by robots. Now, cobots are transforming industry. Mouser Electronics’ Paul Golata explains.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has arrived. Its future is profound. Billions of devices are being connected into the internet allowing for the capture, manipulation and processing signals across a host of sources. Computers connect common everyday objects and devices that employ sensors to capture information.

Collecting analogue information from the external world, this network works to code it into digital signals and transfers it across time and space by means of the internet. Device, edge and cloud domains function as boundaries into various realms in which information is handled. IoT allows for increased coordination and control of automation.

Greater automation is being deplored within industry. The Industrial internet of Things (IIoT) is a specific subset of the IoT. It is primarily concerned with the employment of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production processes in industrial settings, including factories, warehouses and businesses.

The availability of increasingly large amounts of data brought into the network by the way of the IoT enabled devices allows for massive amounts of data to be processed quickly and efficiently, providing insight and better decision-making and process control for industry.

Robots have long been part of industry. Common examples that most people are familiar with include robotics used on manufacturing lines such as automobile assembly. Semiconductor manufacturing makes great use of robots in order to have a steady and reliable control of the process and handling of sensitive and sophisticated products that require great care and consistency.

The rise of IIoT is giving rise to cobots in industry. Cobots are collaborative robots – robots that have been adapted to work synergistically with humans. The reason cobots are increasing is because the IoT allows robots to be coordinated with human activity to achieve higher levels of cooperation and efficiency. Traditional robots are programmed to work largely independent of human-specific interactive activities. In contrast, cobots engage with people. They work with them cooperatively and synergistically.

This is not a cobot invasion – the taking over of an industry by intrusive force. Rather it is an engagement, a mutually beneficial arrangement and relationship, which provides benefits for humans and industry. This article will look at the enabling technologies and applications that are engaging cobots in the domain served by the IIoT.

Enabling technologies

Cobots are engaging with IIoT because technology is enabling robots to be transformed by acquiring new skills that were previously outside the domains of traditional robots. These technologies empower the cobot’s perception, data fusion and processing, artificial intelligence (AI), and actuation. Other technologies promote ease of use, adaptability and lower costs. Let’s look at three specific enabling technologies that are giving rise to cobots engaging in IIoT – machine learning and AI, computer/machine vision, and the smarter edge.

AI is a technique that processes digital data in a manner that seeks to emulate the function, behaviour or results of human thinking, acknowledging that it is not of the same kind, but is attempting to achieve results through rational processes.

Machine learning is the process of employing AI and introducing algorithms that are aimed at producing results that can be modified based upon the machine’s experience in obtaining the desired goal.

Traditional robots operate according to pre-programmed instructions that are repeated without regard to changes in its operational environment. A cobot on the other hand, incorporates AI. This encompasses its ability to perceive its environment; reason and solve problems; recognise, learn and adapt to new situations and environments; autonomously make decisions; and interact with humans. The “programming” of a cobot to operate in a new environment is not necessarily complicated and can simply involve a human operator manually walking through the desired motion by moving the cobot’s arms through the desired trajectory.

AI is enabled through high-speed computer processors and software that may incorporate a variety of technologies such as fuzzy logic, probabilistic methods, neural networks, and expert systems. These technologies provide cobots with human-like qualities that promote human-robot interaction and collaborations. Cobots take and process large amounts of raw data from numerous sensors.

This data is integrated, processed and interpreted – enabling the cobot to make informed and accurate deductions about the environment so that appropriate actions may be taken.

This must be accomplished in essentially real-time to avoid latency issues in the cobot’s operation with humans.

Programming algorithms effectively integrate all the data from various types of sensors, which may come from different locations within the workspace or may be sensed at different times to make informed and accurate deductions about the environment and situation. AI and machine learning enable the cobot to have a form of cognitive skills that mimic human behaviour thereby allowing them to more successfully engage with humans in IIoT environments.

Human vision is one of the most significant senses that humans employ.

Vision is a critical way that humans achieve perception and awareness of their external world.

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