Sci-Fi meets reality in industrial robotics

Industrial robot capabilities continue to expand, which begs the question: is a fully robotic-operated manufacturing plant bordering on reality or still a science fiction fantasy? Emily Mobbs investigates.

he boundary between human and robot is slowly disappearing thanks to a host of technological break throughs in robotic and automa tion systems.

Though it is hard to predict exactly how the industrial robot ic and automation landscape will change in the future, experts are hesitant to suggest one which resembles Hollywood’s version of C3PO from Star Wars.

CSIRO senior research scien tist and Australian Robotics and Automation Association commit tee member, Matthew Dunbabin, says robotic systems of the future will benefit smaller facto ries that require flexible manu facturing processes.

“Traditional automation tech nologies are pretty well proven and I don’t think the basic sys tems will change. What I think will change however, is an increase in smarter, intelligent systems which have the flexibili ty to actually perform multiple tasks instead of simple pick-and- place movements,” Dunbabin told .

Research institutions around the world – including in Australia – have invested signifi cant research and development (R&D) into expanding an indus trial robot’s capabilities, with a strong focus on improving vision and sensor technologies.

According to Dunbabin, Germany, Japan and Korea are currently at the forefront of pro ducing new robotic and automa tion systems but Australia also has the potential to develop cut ting-edge technology.

“Australia puts a lot of R&D into mining and agriculture because they are the sorts of key resources that we have. We are quite world-leading in those areas but I think many of the systems can be applied to the manufacturing industry,” he said.

“Mobile technologies, comput er vision systems and vision- based sorting are used in field robotics and also have the ability to improve the Australian manu facturing industry.”

Dunbabin says however, in order for the manufacturing sec tor to benefit from new technolo gies, further collaboration between industries is required.

“I’m finding even in the field robotics domain we don’t gener ally talk to the manufacturing industry and there are technolo gies on both sides that we could take up. We need more aware ness of what’s out there.”

 

 

Applied Robotics managing director, Dr Paul Wong, says industry is just beginning to extend automation technologies to embrace areas of entirely new manufacturing tasks.

“In the last 30 years most of the ‘easy’ manufacturing tasks have largely been automated. The next wave of applications will apply robots to less struc tured inputs where the work piece may be limp, differs one from another or is generally dif ficult to handle,” Dr Wong said.

“These new applications will require both sensors to see the differences and also an adaptive robot program to follow the changes.”

Applied Robotics specialises in creating original automation solutions which extend existing component technologies into new applications. Over half of the company’s projects have an R&D component.

“There is a lot of room to cre ate new solutions or variants of existing solutions to tackle jobs that are not currently automat ed,” he said.

“It’s unlikely our R&D will pro duce a brand new type of robot, it’s more that we’ll take existing robots, vision systems, sensors, add a few novel technologies or design elements, and then use them in an original way to tackle a hitherto unsolved problem.“We are now tackling these more dif ficult tasks and as a result some 70% of our installed systems in the last five years have featured intelligent sensing functions, adaptive control of the robot and automated quality control capa bility.”

Dr Wong says in ten years time the bulk of robots will be able to work with highly variable pro duction processes and products, but he cannot see the industrial environment requiring machines with complete human-like quali ties.

“We’re not talking about giv ing robots the ability to go and pick up a pallet of cartons that has fallen onto the floor, I know people sometimes have to do this, but we don’t need to imbue robots with this degree of flexi bility in industrial applications,” he said.

“So really, the capabilities will be driven by practical needs rather than just because we can. Otherwise, it doesn’t make eco nomic sense.”

Kupiter industrial PC and automation managing director, Edwin Hsu, says although the number of automation applica tions will continue to grow, there is both technology and cost issues which make a “no-man” factory a science fiction scenario.

“Machines are designed to do certain operations but humans can adapt to all kinds of unex pected situations and deal with connections between the sys tems. I just can’t see it [no-man factory] happening in the next 20 years,” Hsu said.