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Observations from the International Robot Exhibition (IREX)

With over 300 exhibitors spread across two halls, the International Robot Exhibition (IREX) is the largest robot trade show in the world. Held at the Tokyo Big Sight in Japan, the biennial event welcomes robot manufacturers from around the globe to introduce the latest robotic technology. Here, Nigel Smith, managing director at Toshiba Machine partner, TM Robotics explains how IREX’s popularity has grown and how the themes at the 2017 show illustrate changing perceptions towards industrial automation.

Growing popularity
The event was first staged in 1973, but has since grown significantly in popularity and size since then. The most recent show, which was held on November 29 to December 2, 2017, expanded to fill two halls, with exhibitors demonstrating everything from traditional industrial robots to humanoid models using artificial intelligence (AI) to communicate with visitors.

The show has been held in Japan since its inception, evidence of the country’s reputation as a world leader in robotics. Japan’s factories employ over a quarter of a million industrial robots and estimates suggest this will surpass one million in the next 15 years. Despite Japan’s clear enthusiasm for robotics in manufacturing, much of the technology exhibited at IREX expanded beyond industrial applications.

IREX demonstrations
Almost every robot manufacturer is guilty of using novelty applications of robotics to create eye catching displays at trade shows — serving beers, playing golf and interacting with attendees. We’re not judging, we do it too. This method of demonstrating industrial technology in a relatable way is perhaps what expands the appeal of IREX beyond buyers of industrial equipment.

Demonstrations of robotic artificial limbs, humanoid service robots, high precision surgical robots and an overwhelming number of collaborative robots were just a handful of notable demonstrations at IREX, all of which illustrated the advancements in robotics and how they interact with humans. In fact, the overarching theme of IREX, ‘the robot revolution has begun — toward heartwarming society’, provides a nod of approval to the advancements in robotic technology and how it will impact almost every aspect of our lives.

Challenging perceptions
One of the biggest challenges of promoting industrial robotics is dispelling common myths that automation will replace existing jobs. Since six-axis robots were introduced to automotive manufacturing lines in the 1960s, industrial robots have gained a poor reputation as the enemy of the average production line employee. However, while a growing number of manufacturers are embracing robotics and automation, replacing existing staff doesn’t seem to be a priority.

According to the Annual Manufacturing Report 2017, just 27 per cent of manufacturers see automation as a way to reduce staff costs. In fact, 51 per cent see it as an opportunity to redeploy existing staff to perform in more valuable roles. The focus on collaborative robotics at IREX illustrated the growing expectation for collaboration between workers and machines.

Improving collaboration
Unlike traditional robots, these machines are not confined to operate inside a robotic work cell. Instead, they work on the same production line as the human workforce. This type of robot has been hailed as the technology that will diminish fears of automation and provide an opportunity for humans to accept robots.

However, this ideology is a somewhat misguided.

Despite the hype around collaborative robots, the robotics industry does not acknowledge this type of machine as a separate entity to other types of robots. In fact, the industry simply defines standards for when humans work collaboratively with any robotic equipment. This is an important distinction, as some integrators may assume that any robot described as ‘collaborative’ is automatically safe next to humans. Actually, this can only be truly determined by risk assessment.

The growing popularity of collaborative robots may be why robots are seeing as less threatening. However, when compared to other types of industrial robots, what they offer really isn’t all that different.

Robot demonstrations at trade shows are not necessarily designed to demonstrate the increased productivity, accuracy and quality that manufacturers expect from implementing robots in their factories. However, by illustrating how robot technology can be used in a more ‘human’ way — like pulling pints, putting golf balls and working collaboratively alongside other production line workers — the misconception that the rise of the robots is one to be feared is slowing being eliminated.

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