The Future of Robotics in Manufacturing

When talking about the future of robotics in manufacturing, consider that everyone has their own definition of what the future of robotics in manufacturing means to them. Currently, automated machines and robotics improve consistency, productivity, quality, safety, revenue, employee satisfaction, and employee retention in manufacturing across a wide range of industries. Advanced automated systems incorporate robot arms, custom machinery, secondary processing, collaborative functions, and network capable interactivity and monitoring. As these tools evolve, we expect that properly applied robotics can improve our lives.

Targeted Automation 

When most people imagine the future of automation, they may assume we are talking about a lights out, turnkey, fully automated facility. Completely devoid of people, these imaginary factories work day and night picking raw materials, processing those materials into products, packaging and palletizing the products into containers, and shipping the materials. While someday this might be a reality, we think that the future of robotics in manufacturing starts with targeted automation.

  • The Pareto Principle- Sometimes also called the 80/20 rule, this business tactic is about reviewing all of your products and evaluating which of your products has the most potential for growth and revenue. In manufacturing, this means targeting your best performing products for automation rather than automating all of your stock keeping units (SKU). We predict a series of awakenings in manufacturing to robotic automation of these high performing SKUs. Increased production capacity for growth-based products with robotic automation cost effectively upgrades a manufacturers ability to compete without wasting capital investment.
  • Packaging and Palletizing- A custom robotic or machine solution often comes with high variability that may not always have practical return on investment (ROI). But most products require packaging in standard boxes and containers for shipping. Pallets come in standard shipping sizes. A custom end of line packaging machine can robotically package and ship products agnostic to industry and product application.
  • Pick and Place- Repetitive and ergonomically challenging tasks represent the highest source of turnover on a manufacturing floor. Whether your purpose is moving a single part from one conveyor to another or high speed PCB assembly, a pick and place robot can handle those mass production tasks with orientation and singulation. 
  • Modular Linear Transfer Machines- Linear process manufacturing machines combine the utility of fully customized machines with a library of modular manufacturing units. These programmable automated modules can move raw material through cutting, stamping, modifying, and any number specific requirements without being touched and without error. Perfect for high volume low mix tasks, the same machine can swap out individual modules or easily extend the production line with additional modules.
  • Partial automation- Instead of automating the construction of a product from beginning to end, a leaner, ROI focused custom machine or robot can take on the specific bottlenecks and risk points of the production process. They can work alongside the manual process by breaking down the construction of the product into a module-based project with options to build on the previous module in lock step with growth and increased demand.
  • Custom automation- While a fully automated facility may be out of reach of most, a fully automated manufacturing line is achievable in today’s market. Custom automation systems integrators can target the highest performing products on your line, build on off the shelf part and engineering options, and create custom solutions that elegantly incorporate as much proof of concept technology as possible. These custom machines can even be extended with secondary process automation opportunities like Packaging and Palletizing or machine tending.

Better Technology Overall

The future of robotics in manufacturing will continue trends towards faster, more capable, more advanced technology. Today the difference of a year can separate what technology is considered cutting edge, outdated, or obsolete. 

  • Energy Efficiency- Power demands for machines will continue to drop, become more standardized, and more efficient. Green renewable power sources will continue trending more competitively towards fossil fuels.
  • Interoperable Technology- IIOT integrated data collection, monitoring, and AI assisted actions will continue to drive efficiency, impact business direction, and support network control of manufacturing technology across multiple facilities. One COO will be able to monitor and direct manufacturing lines internationally. Updates, maintenance, and upgrades will shift more towards remote support through internet enabled integrator supported maintenance plans.
  • Precision- The future of robotic technology will only continue to shift towards better quality, consistency, and efficiency stoked by waves of invention, innovation, and new materials applications.

The Future of Robotic Costs in Manufacturing

Currently, custom robotic and machine systems require a level of capital investment you would expect for property or vehicles. But as technology advances and becomes more commonplace, we predict that there will be a variety of ways manufacturers can reduce their capital investment burdens.

  • ROI over Capital Investment- When a custom machine can easily cost six or seven figures, it is not unexpected that manufacturers prioritize price in the negotiation stage. We predict though that while the upfront capital investment will always be important, the critical financial focus will shift to swifter ROI. We expect a trend where the smarter investment strategy will pursue a higher upfront cost to shorten the return-on-investment schedule. 
  • Cobot Rental- Collaborative robots, often called cobots, are function specific robotic arms designed to work safely alongside people. With the right programming, a cobot can be assigned to a variety of tasks and reassigned to different functions. Purchasing a cobot, especially as part of a custom automation integration, carries a capital investment price tag. But for simpler programming tasks, we predict the rise of cobot rental. Instead of paying full price and taking on full responsibility for maintenance, these cobots can use swift integration onto manufacturing processes for a monthly fee.
  • Agnostic Technology Savings- In the early days of custom robotic solutions and machines, there were limited options for brands and programming languages. This early dependence on custom programming languages, brand parts, and proprietary PLCs is the source of the incorrect reputation for manufacturers getting shackled to an integrator. We predict that more integrators will move away from taking discounts from exclusive brand contracts to leveraging agnostic parts and software selection for best combination of cost effectiveness and quality. We predict a movement to diversified supply lines with options for reshored sources. We predict integrators pursuing a wider open market for parts and software. 
  • Easier Access- An influx of cheaper access to 3D printers and cost effective technology has created a lower cost of entry for CNC machinists, job shops, and innovators. A similar wave of cost effective innovation has been improving access for automation. Smaller competitors have access to low cost components, integration savings, and CNC machining capability formerly exclusive to large corporate manufacturing entities. We predict a wave of innovation, more accessibility to technology, and more cost effective custom products.

DEI

When we think about the future of robotics, we think about leveling the playing field. Certainly, robotics and custom machinery are inherently devoid of prejudice in a unique way compared to humans. But we see the future of robotics in manufacturing applied constructively to support diversity, equity, and inclusion.

  • Language- Language barriers have often led to exclusion, confusion, and frustration in the manufacturing space. Already there are language options and training assist programs built into Human Machine Interface (HMI) systems. We foresee that as this technology advances, VR enabled training systems will expand on this type of inclusivity with AI assisted training. Robotic programming can be adjusted with settings to account for cultural norms, international regulations, and a standardized use of technology.
  • Competitive barriers- When a small startup company can compete with a larger company, the manufacturing market becomes less exclusive. Applied robotic technology and custom machines means a small business matches the speed, quality, and consistency of a larger company. This invites innovation, unheard voices, and overall market diversity.
  • Physical impairment- When we talk about the negative stereotypes of manufacturing, the physical demands of manual manufacturing are an easy target for scrutiny. Manual manufacturing often requires heavy labor, ergonomically challenging tasks, and repetitive stress activities. The custom robotics and machines of the future do not just take on physically challenging tasks, they break down the barriers that allow people with impairments to pursue a broader range of careers. Ergonomic robots can reduce repetitive stress, allow workers with physical impairments to complete tasks they otherwise could not, and prolong careers for older workers. A custom robot or machine can come with assistive technology to allow those with sensory impairment to perform tasks without needing to rely on sight or hearing. 
  • “Traditional business values”- One of the biggest challenges to embracing innovative ideas is confronting an entrenched establishment. Success, without proper analysis, can incorrectly stagnate a business with a conservative understanding of how to pursue diversity. Instead of interpreting success with ‘gut instinct,’ robotic systems allow unbiased gathering and interpretation of data. Making decisions based on data rather than opinion gives our manufacturers the tools to create a more honest work environment. Data confronts misconceptions with facts.

The Future of Dangers in Robotic Manufacturing

With all cutting-edge technology there will be opportunists, there will be bad actors, and there will be missteps in the application of robotic integration in manufacturing. We have reviewed trends, history, and upcoming market advances. Here are what you should anticipate as pitfalls to steer away from.

  • Flood of opportunists- We have watched an explosion of automation in manufacturing. When a sustained market sees a dramatic spike in demand, it is usually followed by opportunists looking to strike the market before properly vetting whether they have the skill, resources, or bandwidth to plan ROI focused projects, make informed engineering decisions, and prevent scope bloat. We predict a lot of first-time automation adopters having trouble navigating which integrator possesses the engineering and business discipline to scope and remain dedicated to a project.
  • AI Distraction- When ChatGPT can draft a serviceable article and advanced software can generate artist renderings from word prompts, it’s not surprising that so many people have started to wonder whether AI can do the same thing for their manufacturing. There are AI applications for data interpretation and monitoring in robotic manufacturing, but an AI program is not going to replace your engineer. An AI program cannot physically construct your products. And the best ROI related  projects focus on direct calculation of singulation and orientation of your 80/20 products. We predict a lot of integrators having to field questions about AI when they should be plotting practical ways to build a machine that puts dollars on the bottom line.
  • Rushing- One of the first concepts you must accept when starting an automation project is understanding the length of time it takes to complete a project. Scoping can take months and full integration for a large, automated machine or robotic project can take years. With an explosion of manufacturing automation, there will be a lot of pressure to automate faster, choose the integrator that promises the quickest turnover, and skip critical testing and quality assurance. This mentality will lead to projects that do not achieve ROI, spend years engineering out preventable defects, and increase the chances that a major capital investment gathers dust on your manufacturing floor.

If you want to stay ahead in your robotics project, we can help you. Tell us more about your project, schedule a virtual meeting, or call (262)-622-6104 to learn how we can build a robotic or automated system that can last you into the future.