The introduction of industrial robots and, more broadly, digitisation, is profoundly changing the organisation of workstations. This search for operational efficiency and optimisation of production processes is also a source of improvement in working conditions, for example by reducing certain MSDs (Musculoskeletal disorders). Explanations on this fundamental lever of Industry 4.0 to follow.
In the logistics and automotive industries, robots have already been in use for several years. Warehouses and factories are sometimes completely automated, whether for manufacturing, handling or controlling goods. The French government has included in its Recovery Plan, a support to SMEs and intermediate-sized enterprise (ETI) through the dissemination of digital and the adoption of new technologies. This support will allow more sectors to innovate while reorganising their workshops.
What is Robotisation?
According to the ISO 8373:2012 standard for robots and robotic components, an industrial robot is defined as an automatically controlled system, programmed in three or more axes, which may be stationary or mobile, intended for use in industrial automation applications. According to the IFR (International Federation of Robotics) report, the global average in 2019 was 113 industrial robots per 10,000 employees.
France, on the other hand, is positioned at 177, above this international average. The three leading countries in terms of robotisation are Singapore (918), South Korea (868), and Japan (364). There are two categories of robots: industrial robots and collaborative robots (or "cobots").
Industrial robots are designed to automate specific production activities and are therefore designed to work as a replacement for humans. This type of robot can handle large volumes, due to its high work rate (mostly continuous, 24 hours a day). The industrial robot is a rather massive and imposing machine, which remains most of the time at a fixed station. It must also have a secure space, equipped with sensors placed in specific areas, to avoid any contact with the operators.
Cobots or "collaborative robots" were designed to work alongside humans. These robotic arms relieve employees of repetitive tasks. Cobots are mobile and more easily programmable than industrial robots: by simply moving the machine arm, the cobot memorises the movement and then repeats it completely autonomously. Collaborative robots can therefore be guided directly by the operator (both parties work together), or operate in total autonomy.
In terms of safety, these machines do not require external sensors and are able to detect any obstruction and/or contact with an operator.
What is the future of Robotisation?
Robots and machines have a bright future ahead of them! Manufacturers are under great pressure to deliver orders within a very short time. It is therefore imperative to automate production processes in order to meet this growing demand.
In the coming years, robots will be increasingly autonomous and able to assess their working environment, to meet the future challenges of industry. For example, through the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robots are now able to adapt to their environment. This is the case of the widely recognised company, Boston Dynamics, which has, for example, developed the humanoid robot "Atlas", designed to intervene on uneven ground. The latter adapts according to what it sees (jumping in the event of an obstacle for example), and also knows how to get up by itself after a fall.
Although this type of robot is developed for the army, we can imagine its future application in the field of industry, with models capable of adapting to work contexts in factories in the presence of operators.
Also, in an era where companies must limit their carbon footprint, robotisation is trying to make a place for itself. Industrial robot manufacturers are aiming to use lighter composite materials, while developing more energy-efficient control technologies. The aim is also to increase the lifespan of machines, while encouraging recycling or repair when necessary.
There is still some controversy today about the potential substitution of humans by machines. It is important to know that the objective for companies that engage in industrial robotisation is to set up a work organisation that does not replace, but rather makes it possible for humans to collaborate with the machine. Industrial robots and cobots must relieve workers of heavy and sometimes repetitive tasks, while preserving their health in the long term. Robotisation allows new professions to be created, as it is necessary to have expert human skills in this area.
Robotisation also means improved productivity and internal growth.
This gain in performance allows companies to increase their turnover, and thus to have additional funds to invest in recruitment, the implementation of new production lines or even new industrial sites.
How to combine robotisation and digitisation of processes?
It is important to keep in mind that robotisation is one of the key levers of Industry 4.0. The launch and control of production on a workstation are essential elements for operational efficiency and risk reduction. To go faster, manufacturers are no longer hesitating to interconnect production lines to software solutions using PLC modules: for example, the production process can be triggered automatically from a simple order entry, initiated via the in-house planning software.
Also, for quality control, interactive messages can be displayed in the work instructions at a set frequency, so that the operator can enter the essential information via computer/tablet/smartphone. This action allows all the data on the current process to be recorded, such as the tasks to be carried out, the speed or efficiency of the work carried out. It is conceivable that 3D vision robots could be deployed in the future to carry out these field checks: the data will then be transmitted automatically to the operators for action.
Manufacturers are innovating and adapting to the industrial field, developing robots that can be easily handled by field teams. Via their application on tablet/smartphone, the latter will be able to guide the robots remotely to perform certain specific tasks.
Robotisation offers many prospects for companies that are committed to this approach, whether in industry or in any other field of activity (health, agri-food, aeronautics, defence, etc.). Also, we must not forget that the implementation of these new technologies requires technical support: human skill remains essential!
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