Robotics Technology: When it comes to robots, reality still lags behind fiction. But, just because robots haven’t lived up to their promise over the past decades, doesn’t mean they won’t arrive sooner or later. Indeed, a confluence of many advanced technologies is bringing the era of robotics closer – smaller, cheaper, more practical, and cost-effective.
Brawn, Bone & Brain
There are 3 sides to any robot:
- Braun – Power related to the physical payload a robot can move.
- bone – the physical structure of a robot relative to the work it is supposed to do; This determines the robot’s size and weight in relation to its physical payload.
- Brain – Robotic intelligence; what it can independently think and do; How much manual involvement is required.
Because of the way robots are depicted in science fiction, many people expect robots to be human-like in appearance. But in reality, how a robot looks to have more to do with the tasks or functions it can perform. Many machines that don’t look like humans at all can be clearly classified as robots. And in the same way, some human-looking robots are not much further than mechanical mechanisms or toys.
Many early robots were large machines with significant amounts of strength and little else. Old hydraulically operated robots were relegated to the 3-D category – dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks. Technological advances since the first industry implementation have completely modified the capability, performance, and strategic advantages of robots. For example, by the 1980s robots had changed from hydraulically operated to electrically operated units. Improved accuracy and performance.
Industrial Robots Already at Work
Today, the number of robots in the world is approaching 1,000,000, with Japan accounting for about half of that number and the US only 15%. A few decades ago, 90% of robots were used in car manufacturing, typically on assembly lines performing various types of repetitive tasks. Today only 50% are in automobile plants, with the other half spread over other factories, laboratories, warehouses, power plants, hospitals, and many other industries.
Robots are used to assemble products, handle hazardous materials, spray-painting, cut and polish, and inspect products. The number of robots being used for tasks as diverse as cleaning sewers, detecting bombs, and performing complex surgeries is on the rise and will continue to grow in the coming years.
Even with primitive intelligence, robots have demonstrated the ability to generate significant gains in factory productivity, efficiency, and quality. In addition, some “smarter” robots are not in the making; They are used by space explorers, remotely operated surgeons, and even as pets – like Sony’s AIBO mechanical dog. In some ways, some of these other applications show what might be possible on production floors if manufacturers figure out that industrial robots don’t have to be bolted to the floor, or constrained by the limits of the machinery concepts of yesterday. It falls
With the rapidly increasing power of microprocessors and artificial intelligence technologies, robots have dramatically increased their potential as flexible automation tools. Robotics is the new boom in applications demanding advanced intelligence. Robotic technology is converging with a variety of complementary technologies—machine vision, force sensing (touch), speech recognition, and advanced mechanics. This results in exciting new levels of functionality for jobs that were never considered practical for robots before.
The introduction of robots with integrated vision and touch dramatically changes the speed and efficiency of new products and distribution systems. Robots have become so precise that they can be employed where a manual operation is no longer a viable option. Semiconductor manufacturing is one example, where a consistently high level of throughput and quality cannot be achieved with humans and simple mechanization. In addition, significant benefits are gained through enabling rapid product changeover and development that cannot be matched with conventional hard tooling.
As mentioned, the origins of robotic applications lie in the automotive industry. General Motors continues to use and develop new approaches, with approximately 40–50,000 robots. now providing important new strategic options, in the ability to bring greater intelligence to robots Automobile prices have really declined over the past two to three years, so the only way for manufacturers to continue generating profits is to cut structural and production costs.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are typically invested in the facility when plants are converted to new automobile models. The focus of robotic manufacturing technology is reducing capital investment by increasing flexibility. New robotic applications are being explored for tasks that are already automated with dedicated equipment. The flexibility of robots allows those same automated operations to be performed more frequently with cheaper equipment and with significant cost advantages.
A major robotics development area is Intelligent Assist Devices (IAD) – operators manipulate a robot as though it were a bionic extension of their own limbs with increased reach and strength. This is robotics technology – not a replacement for humans or robots, but a new class of ergonomic assist products that help human partners in a variety of ways, Power assist, motion guidance, including line tracking and process automation IAD uses robotics technology to help production people handle parts and payloads—more, heavier, better, faster, with less stress. Using a human-machine interface, the operator and the IAD work together to optimize the lifting, guiding, and positioning movements. Sensors, computer power, and control algorithms translate the operator’s arm motion into superhuman lifting power.
New Robot Configurations
As the technology and economic implications of Moore’s Law continue to drive computing power and value, we should expect more innovations, more cost-effective robot configurations, and more applications beyond the traditional “dumb-waiter” service thrust.
The biggest change in industrial robots is that they will develop into a variety of structures and systems. In many cases, the configurations that will evolve into new automation systems will not be immediately recognizable as robots. For example, the robots automating semiconductor manufacturing look quite different from the robots already used in automotive plants.
We will see the day when there will be more programmable tooling-type robots like this than all the traditional robots in the world today. A huge sea change is coming; Efficiency is important because soon robots will not only offer improved cost-effectiveness but also advantages and operations that were never possible before.
Despite the robot researchers’ desire to emulate human appearance and intelligence, this did not happen. Most robots still can’t see – versatile and rapid object recognition is still not quite achievable. And there are very few examples of bipedal, straight-walking robots like Honda’s P3, which are used mostly for research or sample demonstrations.
A relatively small number of industrial robots are integrated with machine vision systems – this is why it is called machine vision rather than robot vision. Early machine vision adopters paid a very high price due to the technical expertise required to “tweak” such systems. For example, in the mid-1980s, a flexible manufacturing system at Cincinnati Milacron included a $900,000 sight guidance system. By 1998 the average price had fallen to $40,000 and prices continued to decline.
Today, simple pattern-matching vision sensors from Cognex, Omron, and others can be purchased for under $2,000. The price cuts reflect today’s low computing costs and focused development of vision systems for specialized tasks such as inspection.
Robots Are Already in Use Everywhere
Sales of industrial robots have soared to record levels and they have vast, untapped potential for household chores like mowing lawns and vacuuming carpets. Last year, there were 3,000 underwater robots, 2,300 demolition robots, and 1,600 surgical robots in operation. A major increase is predicted for home robots for vacuum cleaning and lawn mowing, from 12,500 in 2000 to almost 500,000 by the end of 2004. iBot’s Roomba Floor Cleaning Robot is available now for under $200.00.
In the wake of the recent anthrax scare, robots are being increasingly used in mail sorting applications. In fact, there is huge potential for the US Postal Service to be mechanized. About 1,000 robots were deployed last year to sort parcels, and the US Postal Service estimates that it has the potential to use up to 80,000 robots for sorting.
Look at the “robots” all around us today: automated gas pumps, bank ATMs, self-service checkout lanes — machines that are already replacing many service jobs.
Fast-forward another few decades. It doesn’t require a huge leap of faith to envision how advances in image processing, microprocessor speed, and human imitation could lead to the automation of even the most boring, low-IQ, low-paying jobs.
Marshall Brain (yes, that’s his name), the founder of HowStuffWorks.com, has written some interesting essays about the future of robotics that are worth a read. They think it’s quite plausible that in the next 40 years, robots will displace most human jobs. According to Brain’s estimates, in his essay “Robotic Nation,” humanoid robots will be widely available by 2030. They will replace jobs currently filled by people in jobs like fast-food service, housekeeping, and retail sales. Unless ways are found to make up for these lost jobs, Brain estimates that by 2055 more than 50% of Americans could be unemployed – replaced by robots.