Top Industries Using Robots
Industrial robots are making the workplace more productive and safer. In many workplaces, they also make work more enjoyable. Robots are impacting industries from automotive manufacturing to agriculture, from warehousing to pharmaceuticals. Some industries have long been using robotics, while others have only just begun. This article presents an overview of the most significant users of industrial robots. We discuss how and why the robots are used. And we take a look at some emerging use cases.
Contents of this article:
- Metal & Machinery
- Plastic and Chemical
- Warehouse and Logistics
- Food Packaging/Groceries
- How to Find the Right Robotic Solution for Your Industry
In automotive factories, robots have become commonplace tools. The automotive industry was the largest user of robots worldwide in 2020. That is according to the International Federation of Robots (IFR). The IFR says that 28% of all robot installations happen in the automotive sector.
There is a fantastic variety of materials used in manufacturing automobiles. Consequently, there are many different types of robots employed. Thousands of parts go into cars, and each part has its own set of fabrication processes.
Articulated Robot Arms
The large and heavy articulated robot arm is frequently found in car factories. Such arms can lift heavy weights. And their flexibility means they can move in any direction. Some of the operations for which such robot arms are used include:
- Windshield installation
- Other large part assemblies – putting on doors, bumpers, etc.
- Material removal – drilling, tapping, deburring, sanding
- Machine tending – putting parts into CNC machines and taking them out
- Finishing – sanding, painting, and polishing
When the parts are smaller and not so heavy, high-speed Delta robots can be used. Car manufacturers use Delta robots in applications such as:
- Assembling electronic components
- Putting together smaller assemblies like pumps and motors
- Pick and place – transferring parts to and from conveyor belts
Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arms (SCARA) arms are especially good at assembling electronics. This kind of assembly involves inserting parts into a flat printed circuit board. Vertical insertion matches well with the geometry of the SCARA robot. Precision is necessary because the pieces have to fit into tiny holes. Some of the other applications automotive makers use SCARA robots for include:
- Cutting fabric for car interiors
- Machine loading and unloading
- Palletizing and depalletizing
Cartesian robots are rigid in all three axes: X, Y, and Z. And these directions are at right angles to each other. Their rigid structure means they can handle relatively high loads. They are precise in all three directions. Carmakers use Cartesian robots to do some of the following kinds of things:
- Pick and place
- Stacking parts into bins
- Assembly of starter motors, wiper motors, fuel injection systems, and instrument clusters
- Adhesive dispensing
Emerging Use Cases for Automotive - Cobots
A relatively new need in automotive manufacturing is for collaborative robots or cobots. More and more buyers demand the customization of their cars. This has caused the car makers’ batch sizes to become smaller. And that puts a higher value on the ability to retool manufacturing processes quickly. So, cobots are being used more and more by automobile companies.
Cobots can be "taught" to perform tasks by people who don't need to know how to write code. This human-to-machine cooperation makes for more flexible operations. The same robot can do different tasks today than the day before because it's been shown by a person how to do it.
Workers are happy about this trend. The uninteresting and tiring aspects of a task can be left to the robot. At the same time, the things that humans are so good at - adaptability and innovation - remain in high demand. People and robots collaborating in this way is a trend in automotive factories.
The use of robots in the electrical and electronics industries has been multiplying. The highest number of robots may soon be in electronics instead of automotive. There are several reasons for this. And the reasons are like those in the auto sector. Namely, a high-volume output combined with a standardization of parts. So, there is a great deal of repetition in electrical and electronics manufacturing.
But, there is a major difference between robots in electronics and automotive factories. And that is the weight lifting capacity. Electronics parts are much smaller than the heavy metal pieces used to make cars. So, robots used in electronics tend to be smaller. They are more lightweight and faster than metalworking robots. Of course, cars today contain a lot of electronics. Apart from that overlap, however, the distinction generally holds.
Assembly and Insertion
The electronics and electrical industries use robots for a variety of operations. These include assembly, insertion, inspection, and transfer of electronics parts. Other uses include screw-tightening and soldering.
SCARA and Delta Robots
You'll find more SCARA and Delta robots in the electronics industry. And you'll find fewer of the heavy robotic arms that are so prevalent in automotive factories. It is easier to make small and lighter robots safe to work alongside people. Many of the robots used in electronics manufacturing are cobots. They operate side-by-side with people without needing safety fences.
Electrical and electronics manufacturers can improve productivity and quality by using robots. Boring and repetitive jobs can be reduced or eliminated. This enhances workplace conditions and improves employee retention rates.
Emerging Use Cases for Electrical/Electronics Industry – Cobots
Computer vision is improving, and the price of cobots is coming down. In turn, the number of companies using robots increases. This trend extends to smaller companies. Smaller firms that still use manual assembly methods can use cobots. They don't have to make huge investments. They can start small and buy a single cobot. After they get some experience, they can see the ROI and justify further purchases.
Cobots make sense for the larger firms, too. Companies want robots that can do many different tasks. Especially when the robot can be taught what to do by someone who does not know how to code.
The third highest user of industrial robots is the metal and machinery sector. They have many good reasons for doing so. Metalworking involves using high temperatures. The workpieces are often large and heavy. Many metalworking tools rotate at high speeds. Grinders, deburring equipment, and drills are all hazardous to use. Many metalworking operations generate filings and metal particles that fly off the workpieces. These airborne particles are dangerous to people.
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) has long been used to automate machining processes. CNC machines offer a vast improvement over manual operations. Numeric control provides higher speed and greater accuracy. It also makes the workplace safer. Still, CNC machines need people to carefully set them up and tend to them as they do their work. People need to load blank workpieces into the machines. When a process is complete, the pieces need to be unloaded. Often, they must be put onto a conveyor or into a box.
Robotic arms are used for machine-tending. They can feed parts into a CNC machine. At the right time, the robots can remove the finished piece. Then the robot moves the piece into the next step in the machining process. Machine tending is tedious work. And workers can quickly become distracted or bored. This increases the risk of incorrect actions. Human error can damage expensive equipment or parts, as well as cause personal injury. Using robots to do machine tending reduces such risks. And, of course, robots do not tire and can work around the clock.
Robots That Replace CNC Machines
In some cases, robotic arms can replace the CNC machine. The robot can directly hold the tool and perform the metalworking operation. Examples include drilling, sanding, deburring, and finishing. The robotic arm can often perform more complex movements than traditional CNC machines. This allows for fewer steps in the machining process. Fewer operations mean a shorter time to completion. The result is higher productivity, greater customer satisfaction, and improved profitability. More complex parts can be made and in less time.
Emerging Use Case for Metal & Machinery – Cobots
Cobots are attractive because they can be used in such a flexible way. An industrial worker can train a cobot arm what to do by simply moving it. Cobots are designed to be safe to operate alongside humans. They are equipped with sensors that make them safer. They don’t move as fast, and they don’t use as much force. They can detect if they bump up against something. Cobots often have computer vision which allows them to see obstacles. Computer vision also means cobots can be used for quality control. High-resolution vision is a requirement for many applications.
Robots are being used in a wide variety of ways in the plastics and chemical industries. One of the best reasons for using robots is to keep employees safe. In this regard, robots can make all the difference in the world.
In chemical factories, large tanks often need to be cleaned. This cleaning requires employees to dress in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The PPE protects people from corrosive chemicals and harmful fumes. Chemical companies can now use remotely controlled robots to go into the tanks. The people stay outside the tank and guide the robots. The operators can see using cameras mounted on the robots. The robots are built with powerful spraying equipment which does the cleaning.
Packing and Shipping
Packing and shipping are tasks for which robots are used in the chemical industry. Such assembly line processes are highly repetitive and ideally suited for robotics.
Laboratory technicians regularly need to dispense precise quantities of liquids into test tubes. This is necessary to perform various measurements and analyses. Pipetting robots are used for this purpose. Such robots free up people to be able to perform more demanding and rewarding tasks. The robots can also increase the throughput of the pipetting operation.
Injection molding of plastic requires several machine-tending operations. These include loading and unloading, stacking and lifting, as well as palletizing. A robot can reach inside the injection molding equipment. It can remove the finished part from the machine without damaging it. Robots can do this accurately and untiringly. Productivity is improved, and cycle times are reduced. And robots don't need breaks or make mistakes.
Emerging Use Case for Plastic and Chemical – Aerial Drones and Cobots
In chemical plants, smokestacks, boilers, and piping are often very tall. Such equipment needs to be periodically inspected. In the past, such inspection required shutting down the plant. The equipment needed to cool down for safety reasons.
Aerial drones can perform these inspections. The drones have high-resolution cameras and air-quality sensors. They might have thermal imaging equipment, too. And they can fly as high as necessary. The people stay safe on the ground. The drones can carry out inspections while the plant continues to operate.
The use of cobots in the plastics and chemical industries is on the rise. A cobot can trim off excess material from a plastic part created by injection molding. Afterward, it can put the piece onto a conveyor belt. When the part changes, the cobot can be taught to perform new motions by a worker. And the worker does not need to know how to code.
Construction robots are a relatively new phenomenon. Yet, the industry is ripe for innovation. And robots offer many advantages. Construction is still a very labor-intensive industry, but robots are coming on fast.
Emerging Use Cases in Construction
Tying reinforcing metal bars ("rebar") in road and bridge construction is a highly manual process. It usually requires workers to stoop over. They must wear heavy gloves and protective gear. The workers fasten pieces of rebar together by twisting the wire around the rebar. The wire is twisted around where the pieces of rebar intersect. There can be tens of thousands of such ties in road and bridge construction. Depending on the length of the road, there can be millions of such ties.
Robotic equipment can automate tying rebar. The equipment consists of a large trestle, the width of the roadbed. The trestle has many robotic rebar-tying arms on it. As the trestle rolls along the roadbed, the robot arms perform the twisting of the wire in many places at the same time. Such robots can relieve people from this backbreaking and uninteresting labor. It speeds up construction time and improves the consistency of the work.
Lifting Cement Blocks for Masons
Masons need to lift heavy cement blocks. The average mason lifts over 3000 such blocks per day. The work is exhausting, and repetitive motion injuries are common. Many masons need shoulder operations before long. Robotic arms, guided by the masons, can do the heavy lifting. The robot saves people from unnecessary effort and repetitive motion injuries. The work gets done faster, the men are less tired, and more projects can be completed in less time.
There are robotic arms that automate the bricklaying process. The robots precisely dispense the amount of grout. They place the bricks with excellent accuracy and press down with just the right amount of force. Again, automation means higher productivity and lower costs.
Painting robots can paint a room in a fraction of the time it takes a person to do it. And the painting robot is not bothered by toxic fumes.
The construction industry uses Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) to perform layouts. The AMR will print lines on the floor to show workers where to locate walls and other features.
Some construction companies use self-driving excavation robots. Their use is still in its infancy. Some manufacturers offer kits to upgrade a manual excavator into a robotic one.
Trenching is one current application. And others are being added. Some of the operations include loading trucks, transporting material, pile driving, and grading.
Aerial drones are used on construction sites to get an overview of the progress of a project. The drones can make measurements more accurately than with other methods. And drones can improve construction site safety by using the observations they supply.
The cost of labor continues to rise, and there is a worldwide shortage of labor in many industries. This is one factor that drives automation. The rising cost of labor is another. Agriculture is no exception.
The use of robots in agriculture is still in its early stages. There are dozens of exciting potential use cases. Many startup companies are entering the fray. The research firm MarketsandMarkets estimated the market to be about $7 billion in 2020. It's projected to reach $12.8 billion over the next four years.
Emerging Use Cases for Agriculture
Self-Driving Tractors and Vehicles
Grain farmers in developed countries are already using highly mechanized farming. The use of GPS and various ground sensors are built into many new tractors and harvesters. Farm equipment manufacturers are adding self-driving capabilities to these farm vehicles. Some of the biggest names in farm equipment have invested heavily in this technology.
Weeding robots are in various stages of development. More and more plants resist broad-spectrum pesticides. So, finding alternative approaches to killing weeds is essential.
Advanced computer vision is being used to recognize weeds. The robot can determine not only that something is a weed, but the specific kind of weed. Then a chemical specially chosen just for that weed can be used. And the chemical is applied only to that one plant. The kind of chemical is chosen by the onboard AI in the tractor or robotic instrument pulled by the tractor. Another approach uses lasers to zap the weeds. This avoids the use of chemicals altogether. Using blades to cut and thermal pulses to kill weeds are alternative technologies.
Fruit and vegetable picking is an area of much investment. Computer vision can tell whether something is ripe. There are lettuce-picking robots, apple-picking robots, and strawberry-picking robots. They are in various stages of commercialization.
Aerial drones are enjoying increasing use in agriculture. The drone can collect data that can produce colorized maps of fields. The maps can show where the weeds are. They can show the moisture of the soil and the health of the crops. The farmer can then use this information to plan his interventions to solve the problems. Often, these are problems about which the farmer had previously been unaware.
In 2020, the estimate was that about 80% of warehouses worldwide do not use robotics. This is changing rapidly. High rates of growth in automation are forecast for this industry. Warehouse robots increase operational productivity and reduce labor costs. They relieve people of the burden of repetitive, uninteresting tasks.
Studies show that many people in warehouses spend most of their time traveling. They might be pushing a cart or driving forklifts or other industrial equipment. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) can automate these activities.
There is a wide variety of AMRs available for transporting goods within a warehouse. Some are designed for moving entire pallets and heavy loads. Others are optimized for smaller weights. Some AMRs look like ordinary forklift trucks, and people can indeed drive them. But they also have a self-driving mode. Other self-driving forklifts are low-slung carts that only operate autonomously.
Reducing the labor content of the order picking process is becoming more critical. This is because of E-commerce. E-commerce means a larger number of products. And a smaller number of items per order. The combination makes order picking for E-commerce more labor-intensive.
Most solutions involve AMRs helping to transport goods. Moving goods around is a low-value part of the picking process.
In most order-picking automation, people still select and remove products from the shelves. The worker scans the barcode of the product and puts it into a bin on the AMR. The barcode scanner is often built into the AMR. The AMR does the traveling through the warehouse. This type of solution can result in a doubling of productivity or even more.
Robots that can do the picking are also available for some use cases. Such robots need advanced vision systems and grippers.
Palletizing robots automate the process of loading boxes onto a pallet. The robot optimizes the stacking to maximize the number of boxes that will fit. The pallet can be shrink-wrapped for shipment.
Box-Making, Labeling and Sorting
Warehouse robots create custom-sized boxes. They apply labels to containers and sort packages by postal code or other criteria. Robots that can perform these and different functions are all commercially available.
Emerging Use Cases for Warehouses: Aerial Drones and Delivery Robots
Warehouses are starting to use aerial drones to take inventory.
When done manually, the inventory-taking process involves people getting up on ladders. They have to look into boxes to count the number of items. It is time-consuming, slow, and tedious.
Most warehouses have a goal of taking inventory twice per year, and many are not able to do so.
Drones can fly through the aisles, reading barcodes and counting items. When their batteries begin to get low, the drones fly to a nesting area and recharge. With such aerial robots, inventory can be taken every two weeks, saving huge amounts of time and money.
Delivery robots are in the early stages of implementation. There are pilot projects for delivering fast food and groceries. Amazon and other E-commerce companies want to make deliveries using aerial drones. Potentially millions of different kinds of items could be delivered in this way. It appears the technology is ready, but there are regulatory hurdles to overcome.
The ability to robotically package fruits and vegetables is in the commercial stage. Robotic solutions can pick and place produce. Robots can also pack the produce for shipment.
A robotic gripper is needed that can be firm enough to hold the produce and yet gentle enough not to damage it. The gripping technology is combined with AI-assisted computer vision. High-volume produce packaging is commercially available and quite cost-effective.
More and more people want to buy groceries online. Some customers like the option to pick up their groceries from the store. Others prefer to have them delivered. This has placed an enormous burden on grocery stores. Stores have had to dedicate people to picking customer orders. And the orders must be packed into bags or boxes. People then put them out for pick up. Or someone drives to the customer's location to deliver.
Emerging Use Cases for Food Packaging and Groceries
Robotics vendors have created systems to help grocery stores with all these tasks. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) can be fit into the back of a grocery store. The AS/RS presents the products to a robotic picking station, which can load the products into bags or boxes.
For delivery to the customer, self-driving vehicles have been created. They are in various stages of testing. A few geographical areas are conducting pilot projects.
Robots are well established in the pharmaceutical industry. Here are some of the ways robots are being used in this sector.
Delta or SCARA robots can place tablets into blister packs. These robots are fast and accurate when handling lightweight items. Labeling bottles of pills or liquid medications is often done robotically.
Pharmaceutical companies need to dispense precise amounts of liquid into testing vials. The vials must be fed into test equipment such as a liquid chromatograph. This is a good application for robotics. Pipetting robots are commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry.
Pick and Place
Human contact with pharmaceuticals can cause contamination. Drug companies naturally want to minimize the chance this will happen. Robots are useful for this reason alone. One example is packaging medical syringes. Syringes must be picked off a conveyor line and placed into a container. When a person does this, there is a risk of contamination and injury. Having robots perform this function proved challenging because the syringes are transparent. Transparency poses difficulties for the computer vision system. This challenge was overcome. The result is a robotic process that guarantees high quality and consistency.
Emerging Use Case for Pharmaceutical – Assisting Pharmacists
Assisting pharmacists is a relatively new use case for robots. They are ideal for menial tasks like counting pills. Prescriptions are entered into the pharmacy computer system. The software can determine the correct size of container needed. It can find the appropriate drug, and a robotic arm can dispense the pills into the container. The robot can also apply an appropriate label and place the labeled container on a conveyor belt.
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