Robots unlock growth for a wider range of users

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Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics, explains how recent developments in robotics are helping automation tackle new applications for a wider range of users. 

Faced with a continuing labour squeeze and the need to boost productivity in a sustainable way, manufacturers and distribution companies are increasingly turning to automation for answers. 

The most recent World Robotics Report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) highlights a global increase in the rate of robot adoption, recording 553,052 industrial robot installations in factories around the world in 2023 – up 5% compared to 2022. What’s more, the IFR predicts that new installations will top 600,000 in 2024.  

Developments such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine vision are key drivers in this shift, paving the way for deployments in an expanded range of applications. 

Today’s robotic solutions can be used to achieve highly automated end-to-end manufacturing, with options encompassing everything from low payload cobots and fast picking Delta robots to complete lines handling multiple operations. The development of smart AGVs and mobile robots (AMRs) enables the seamless transfer of parts or sub-assemblies between different production stations. Globally, the benefits of this increasingly joined-up approach are driving steady growth across a variety of industries, including food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, electronics, logistics and construction. 

A new level of simplicity

Innovations such as cobots, and simplified programming and user interfaces, are helping to address many of the concerns that have deterred SMEs from investing in robotic automation, providing them with an easy and scalable way to integrate robotic automation into their operations. Cobots provide the opportunity for inexperienced users to tackle the low hanging fruit of simpler applications. 

Meanwhile, developments such as block-based programming are making it much easier for first-time users to introduce robotic automation without the need for specialist programming skills. ABB’s Wizard easy programming software for its cobots and small IRB 1100 industrial robot uses Blockly, for example. This open-source visual coding method presents programming language or code as interlocking blocks, which can be used to quickly build robot application programs. 

Tools such as digital twins, virtual and augmented reality viewers, offline programming, and simulation enable companies to develop and test different configurations before installing new solutions or changing existing ones. This is especially beneficial for industries subject to rapid changes in consumer demand, such as food and beverage and logistics, which must be ready to adapt fast to accommodate new products or packages. 

Boosting productivity

Robots can enhance workforce productivity, taking on lower value, dirty or dangerous tasks, or providing additional production capacity. Developments such as vision, force control and path following increasingly enable robots to plug the skills gap. 

This is attracting new users in non-traditional sectors such as construction and healthcare, as well as manufacturing and logistics.

Preparing for a robotic future

With many companies citing a shortage of expert robot operators as a barrier to adoption, there is a need to ensure that both current and future generations of workers can access the training they need to be able to use robots. For this reason, robot manufacturers, including ABB, have devoted considerable effort to designing training programmes aimed at all levels of ability, enabling operators to develop their skills from basic through to advanced levels. 

As the capabilities of robots continues to expand, new opportunities are being created for companies to find ways to grow by applying robotic automation to addressing their challenges. 

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