The industrial robot: reinventing the factory

Industry has been using robots for many years, starting with automakers. Now, the industry of the future is bringing a different approach to robotics, reinventing the factory to make industry more efficient and, contrary to common belief, more human.

A flagship tool that took off in the third industrial revolution, the robot has allowed certain production line tasks to be automated. Concretely, it is an articulated arm associated with a control bay. It is delivered naked by the manufacturer, that is, without the end effector (weld torch, camera, pliers, etc.) that defines the process application for the robot.

Alone, it cannot produce anything. It therefore has to be incorporated into an industrial application, which will give the robot its added value. This is where the integrator, such as Actemium comes into play. As well as designing the effector, it works on the safety protection systems around the robot and its surrounding peripherals, such as its travel mechanism. These components combined form a robot cell ready for turnkey delivery.

Robotising industry: what are the holdups?

Some countries are at the cutting edge of robotisation: Germany, Japan, United States, etc. France, on the other hand, is lagging somewhat behind. There is therefore real potential for growth and development through robotisation for its SMEs. The sticking points mentioned include excessively high cost and overly complex implementation. In France, there are 124 robots for every 10,000 employees compared with 273 in Germany and 160 in Italy.

For Jérémie Pedros, General Manager of Actemium Robotique et Automation, the risks, financial in particular, are actually less than thought. “As the robot is a standard component, it’s relatively easy to borrow one. Some clients wanting to industrialise a process find themselves in an unknown territory. We can lead them through by offering them a demonstrator, a robot we have in our workshop, to test and validate the tool’s performance before they commit to any actual investment.” And of course once the robot has been installed, “we can train the operators in how to use the robots, work with the company through all this change, and provide maintenance”.

What can industry robotise?

Some tasks are commonly robotised, such as foundry operations, tasks where there is a risk for the operators or handling heavy loads. No all tasks are suitable, “The idea is that humans are the pilots. The application of this technology has its limits, financial in particular, and it is not relevant to robotise all tasks”, explains Stéphane Vallette, General Manager of Actemium Maintenance Intégration.

An industrial robot, to what end?

In addition to the obvious improvement in productivity from the installation of robots that produce more efficiently while also reducing costs, flexibility is one of the main advantages of a robot. By definition, it provides the ability to evolve, unlike a specialist machine “manufactured to equate perfectly to the client’s needs, but when changes are made to the product, specifications, throughput rates or organisation, the specialist machine is so specific to a single application that it is difficult to make any changes to it”, explains Jérémie Pedros. “With a robot, it’s quite the opposite. Its programs and functions can be adapted to suit the many changes introduced. An investment in a robot is for long term.”

People are afraid of robots because they think they will take jobs away from them. But, the more a company uses robot, the less unemployment there is, because the company is more competitive, preventing it from relocating

Robotising production also helps improve the process and product quality. “We know that the robot will always repeat the task in exactly the same way, with the same performance, same speed and same reproducible movement”, adds Jérémie Pedros. The underlying benefit is constant quality with fewer rejects or returns.

Robotise to increase productivity rather than relocate

The French term ‘robotcaliser’ (a contraction of robot and ‘délocaliser’ meaning to relocate) was invented by Symop’s Robotics group. The underlying idea here is to promote robotisation as an alternative to relocating. Production automation increases productivity. “People are afraid of robots because they think they will take jobs away from them. But, the more a company uses robot, the less unemployment there is, because the company is more competitive, preventing it from relocating”, explains Stéphane Vallette.

In fact, robotisation may even create jobs. Historically, according to a study by Deloitte, this technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. The most tedious or dangerous tasks are eliminated from the job market, but new positions open up, such as machine operation, maintenance and robot servicing.

Reinventing the factory with our allies the robots and cobots

“Industry 3.0 has tended to massively automate processes and manufacturing, as part of a growing trend towards product standardisation. This process has gone so far down the robotisation path that it has ejected humans from the factory floor”, explains Jérémie Pedros. “Industry 4.0, or the industry of the future will involve quite a different approach to robotics, putting humans back at the center of the factory and enabling them to reclaim ownership of the production plant.”

By replacing or assisting humans in the most dangerous and tedious tasks or those that cause MSDs (handling heavy loads, risk of fumes, noisy environment, etc.), robots are helping make work less laborious and enabling humans to focus on value added tasks.

Cobots, a recent evolution in robotics, tie in with this idea. Cobots help or assist humans, interacting with them, but always under the operator’s control. Another advantage, “cobotics is democratising robotics. It is simpler to put in place, costs less, but requires more extensive preliminary studies in order to ensure the installation’s safety”, explains Stéphane Vallette. The notion of the human augmented with a robot that responds to his or her ideas and thoughts is only a few steps away from becoming reality.