The Future of High Dexterity Manufacturing Robots
An impressive glimpse of things to come in the world of manufacturing robots is ABB’s (NYSE: ABB) YuMi collaborative robot.
YuMi showcases some groundbreaking advances in advanced manufacturing robots. It’s designed to manipulate the most delicate objects, such as computer components that usually can only be handled by humans. It’s so gentle and dexterous that it can actually do origami with origami paper. It can even fold paper airplanes and then put them into flight just like a human.
Unlike most robots, YuMi has two arms with tiny grippers at the end. Each arm has an amazing 14 axis of articulation. The grippers are equipped with vacuum ports, which help it grip small and delicate objects. Each of the two hands to which the grippers are attached have cameras that allow it to see what it’s going to grip or pick up before it picks up the object and allows it to better understand how the gripping action is affecting the object it is moving.
The robots are run using advanced software, which includes machine learning capabilities. The software also has artificial intelligence that, in combination with the aforementioned cameras, allows it to learn what happens to the object as it grips and manipulates it. ABB shows an interesting video where a bucket full of small soft objects is placed in front of a YuMi and it’s “told” to remove all the items from the bucket one by one. In some cases, the grippers will actually prod and poke some of the soft items to find the best way to grip the object.
What’s really interesting here is that the robot will learn from its experiments, and the next time it comes by a similar looking object, it will apply what it had previously learned and grip the object faster than the first time it encountered that object. I called the YuMi a “collaborative” robot because it’s intended to work side by side with humans. To make this safe, YuMi’s arms are made from lightweight magnesium with heaving padding on their exterior components, so that if they do accidentally make contact with a human, he or she won’t be injured. Moreover, the robot has special hardware that limits its speed to reduce the chances of injuries. Finally, YuMi’s equipped with special smart sensors that can distinguish if contact with a human has occurred and then shut down the robot within milliseconds.
It’s Not Only About What Happens on the Factory Floor, but What Happens Before
Some of the advances affording even greater utility to manufacturing robots will come before the robots are even placed on the factory floor. This will occur through the use of highly accurate and detailed simulations of manufacturing robots operating in virtual factory settings.
France’s Dassault Systems (Paris: DSY) is a leader in simulating manufacturing robots and virtual factories. Such capabilities allow robot programmers to simulate the interoperability between robots, tools, workpieces, and people to test run manufacturing operations long before hardware is purchased and installed in a physical factory.
In the end, this allows for faster, less expensive product launches. It also allows for greater manufacturing flexibility, cost savings through reduced maintenance, and cost savings through realizing maximum economies of scale – i.e. Getting the most value out of each robot placed in a manufacturing environment.
Regarding maintenance, another important development is that smart sensors placed on tomorrow’s robots will read the vibrations coming up through the robot’s joints and accurately assess the need for maintenance.
The Manufacturing Robotics MegaTrend
The advances in manufacturing robotics described above will result in the ability of factories to turn-out completely custom products with the same efficiency only possible today on nearly identical high volume production assembly lines. This will drive value to customers who will now be able to afford the bespoke items they always wanted.
Be sure, this will drive greater revenue and profits for our most beloved manufacturing companies, and in roughly a decade’s time, it will rocket robotics to a $50 billion industry, if not higher.
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