Identifying the wonders of the future is by no means a simple task for even the brightest contemporary mind. Technology, and the many uses society is developing for it, continue to shock and awe on a daily basis. And while the shape of the world in the not-too-distant future remains a mystery to most, there is one inalienable conclusion that can be drawn: the world of tomorrow will rely heavily on robotics.
Robotic technology, and by extension, the robotic technicians that keep them operating, has already had a transformative effect on the manufacturing sector – providing cheaper, more efficient, and infinitely faster production methods. Considering the giant leaps forward that robots and robotic technology has leant the sector thus far, it’s difficult to image how it can further revolutionize manufacturing. Though it may seem this way to someone on the outside looking in, factory production is facing a number of challenges that robotic technology is on the cusp of solving.
High Variety Production Mixes
Installing an automated manufacturing system controlled by an intelligent PLC programmer can certainly provide a more expeditious turnaround on customer orders and ensure a near perfect degree of quality, but current technology on the factory floor does not address the need for flexibility – particularly when it comes to being able to produce a variety of different products for a number of different clients.
Additionally, lengthy setup times (which can be quite costly and involve a significant amount of downtime) understandably acts as a barrier for those wishing to hire a manufacturer for small batch runs or for products that have a relatively short lifecycle.
OMRON, a Japanese-based industrial robotics manufacturer, has developed a system that addresses product mix variety through a combination of software and control architecture. They’ve also had the foresight to develop integration options with three of their robot families, providing additional versatility.
Of course, OMRON is just one company and production mix flexibility is just one issue – but it does go to show that there are those out there working on this issue. Closer to home, the Allen-Bradley platform is widely used control system for manufacturing applications both big and small for those seeking technology that embodies scalable, multi-disciplined and information-enabled programmable automation controller (PAC) to drive their operations.
Small Scale Manufacturers Are No Longer Being Left Out
There was a time when, due to the massive financial investment required, only the biggest and wealthiest companies could afford to automate their production lines. As times change, small and medium-sized companies are finding affordable automation solutions, allowing them to compete more effectively with larger competitors.
This affordability of automation technology means that industry spending on robotics is expected to grow from $15 billion annually in 2010 to $67 billion by 2025. Not only does this mean that the manufacturing sector as a whole will become increasingly efficient and competitive, it also means that there will be unprecedented demand for a skilled workforce trained to work on and with robotics. Not unsurprisingly, institutions like George Brown College are offering technology-focused certificate programs and online technology courses designed to meet this impending need.
Another challenge the industry is facing is not so much about the technology itself, rather it’s more about the when and where automation technology should be used. For the most part, complete and total factory automation isn’t realistic, nor is it practical. As manufacturers transition from an entirely human workforce to one that is largely robotic, the equilibrium point between the number of human workers required to run the facility versus the degree to which the plant will be automated must be determined and prepared for before any real changes can take place.
Openness to the Adoption of New and Emerging Technologies
As previously stated, the cost of some robotic and automation technology is dropping allowing for a growing number of manufacturers to automate the factory productions. As such, manufacturers can now afford to be a bit more flexible when it comes to adopting new technological innovations. Understandably, the high cost nature of high-end machinery seems to infer that once a system is bought and paid for, there is no need to look for further improvements.
The economies of scale that has benefited the robotics industry means that manufacturers can take a more liquid approach when it comes to the systems they employ to manufacture goods.