Increasingly, manufacturers are considering robotic technology to help with process efficiency, operational fluency, and cost savings. Focusing on advancements in added capabilities and applications in robotics could also result new opportunities.
Scientists and engineers at NIST Labs in the US are working to improve the current processes deployed on many manufacturing shop-floors by introducing cutting-edge technology. Their work includes developing testing methods, performance metrics, and measurement tools that could become industry standards.
One of their priorities is the advancement of grasping, manipulation, and safety performance.
Their research is focused on the development of easily accessible human machine interfaces (HMIs); better repeatability for robots to perform movements and actions reliably within an X, Y, Z co-ordinate system; improved situational and safety awareness and new gripper designs for more precise movements.
Currently, adoption of robotics in manufacturing tends to focus on repetitive, unskilled tasks such as loading, handling, packing, and palletising, with assembly accounting for only 2%. However, industry experts and NIST researchers think that the potential for more widespread adoption by Small and Medium-Sized Manufacturers (SMMs) will increase as manipulation technology develops, enabling the performance of more complex operations. For example, tactile sensing will allow robots to grip using the appropriate force at different parts of the process, potentially cutting out what will have at that point become redundant steps.
Using the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standards platform, NIST Labs are developing various test methods for gripping and manipulation. The 4 most common types of robotic grippers are: hydraulic, pneumatic, servo-electric and vacuum. New designs use 6-axis force torque sensors which provide accurate force and torque measurements along all 6 axes and include human hand mimicking mechanisms.
Nevertheless, there is a trade-off between robotics functionality and ease of use which is not so much the case with fixed automation systems. Though a robot can be built and programmed to do almost anything, the more functionality that is built in, the more environmental considerations must be taken into the conditional requirements. This then impacts on the difficultly of programming and integrating the robot into operations for additional tasks.
Using robots in manufacturing to automate repetitive tasks, significantly decrease margins of error, and enable human workers to focus on more productive areas of the operation offers many possibilities. Offering the capability to replace humans in some areas of manufacturing and complement them in others, the challenge for SMMs is how best to harness this potential.