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Challenges in Robotic Design for Factory Automation

While we’re yet to see if robots will take over our daily lives one day, they have definitely established their post in factory automation applications. Robots are now a fundamental part of manufacturing processes across several industries, and as they become smarter, nimbler, and more efficient, their role will only continue to grow.  

SOURCE: Future Electronics Blog

Nowadays, with technologies like 5G, AI, and IoT, we’re witnessing the new era of factory automation. In today’s factories, robots are no longer tied to a single fixed function. Robotic design is shifting towards adaptability as well as the capability of working alongside humans (as cobots) safely and efficiently towards the next era of the industry.

But what are some of the main challenges designers are currently trying to tackle in this field?

Precision and efficiency

A never-ending search for increased precision and efficiency is one of the main drivers behind robotic innovation. This era of the industry is not an exception.

Moving on from fixed function to agile manufacturing, the need for adaptability and capacity to complete a wider range of tasks makes speed and precision more challenging. However, the margin for error is smaller every time, and while tasks assigned to robotics were once more permissive, they are now being trusted with extremely delicate processes like wire welding along a seam.

What does this mean for designers?

On the search for optimal speed and accuracy, engineers are met with many challenges. First, we must consider the mechanical side, where gearbox miniaturization and reducing heat and vibrations impact is key to ensuring steady function.

On the other hand, the environment and software of a robot must be optimized towards these goals. A good place to start is by recording each arm placement as compared to the target, signaling errors and updating software accordingly.

Power management – Charging solutions

When we talk about industrial robotics, we have two main types of characters: Robotic arms, which are static and connected to a power source; and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) which move around performing various tasks among the line of production. These latter, however, require batteries to work and move freely, which means they need to spend an important amount of time plugged in, out of service.

Wireless charging, for example, provides a possible solution for this challenge. Engineers must come up with creative solutions and innovations to keep AGVs power running while they move around factories performing tasks and roaming in their workstations.

Adaptability – Self positioning

As customers increasingly demand variation in products, manufacturers need to shift accordingly. While the earlier era of industrial manufacturing was ruled by ‘low mix, high volume’ product variety, we are now experiencing the opposite, a customer-focused shift to ‘high mix, low volume’ model, producing more diverse products at a lower quantity.

This brings several challenges for factories, requiring them to be quick to adapt and having flexible production lines where the setup can be modified as necessary. This gives AGVs a new challenge. Yes, they still must be quick, nimble and precise, but now they must learn to navigate and adapt to ever-changing environments and configurations in the production line. To achieve this, AGVs must be able to self-position accurately in an XYZ axis and remain ‘alert’ to adapt in real time to any new possible conditions, posing a very interesting technical challenge for robotic engineers.

Cobot safety – Sense and detect

In the past, factories required robots to be isolated from employees to maximize safety. Now, however, cooperative robots (cobots) are challenging the norm and increasingly gaining importance thanks to the incredible advantage they bring in efficiency, not to mention the fact that eliminating the need to separate humans and robots can reduce floor space and costs by around 25%.

Nevertheless, for this to happen, human safety must remain paramount. Cobot design must guarantee human safety before anything else. For this reason, cobots must always be equipped with top-of-the-line sensing and detection technology, ensuring robots can identify humans from objects and adjust accordingly within a factory setting.

Once the sense and detect features are taken care of, engineers can develop safe cobots that work hand in hand with humans to optimize production lines, floor space, and maximize factory automation.

Remote operation

Wireless remote control of factories operation could be closer than it seems. Latest advancements in wireless network technology have allowed developers to design innovative concepts to control complete factories from remote settings as well as monitoring other factories from a main headquarter location.

Currently, experiments are being trialed using Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), requiring the best technologies in low-latency network for success. As 5G networks continue to proliferate, this idea could be closer than it seems, and the new challenge being presented is to develop simple interfaces to ensure ease of operation for employees across different levels of expertise ensuring safety and efficiency.

As the Factory automation industry continues to grow, how can you approach these challenges and come up with solutions that will shape the next generation? Stay at the forefront of the market and get help on your next design by reaching out to one of our experts. Contact us and let us know how we can help!

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