The definition of an industrial robot system has evolved considerably in recent years.
In order to determine what an industrial robot is, it is useful to consider the changes from their origin to the present day.
The first robots were precisely industrial robots seen as machines capable of executing certain repetitive and fairly static movements.
Today, as technology advances, it is more complex to differentiate between what is an industrial robot, what is a service robot and how to delimit their working areas.
In the World Robotics 2021 report, it is determined that the classification into industrial robot or service robot is made according to their intended application. Industrial robots are robots “for use in industrial automation applications”, while a service robot “performs useful tasks for people or equipment, excluding industrial automation applications”.
The truth is that inside the industry there are scenarios where robots and humans have to share space and tasks, and therefore, industrial robots are no longer restricted to a safety zone.
More and more often, we find service robots by definition working in industrial applications.
In fact, in the so-called Industry 4.0, collaborative robots play a key role. Today, we would not be talking about collaborative robotics without the prior development of industrial robots systems and their journey towards intelligent automation solutions based on human interaction.
The IFR’s use of the term “industrial robot” is based on the definition of the International Organization for Standardization: an “automatically controlled, reprogrammable multipurpose manipulator, programmable in three or more axes, which can be either fixed in place or fixed to a mobile platform for use in automation applications in an industrial environment“. (ISO 8373:2021)
The terms used in the definition mean:
Industrial robots can be classified according to mechanical structure:
So, what is an industrial robot? An industrial robot is one that has been developed to automate intensive production tasks such as those required by a constantly moving assembly line. As large, heavy robots, they are placed in fixed positions within an industrial plant and all other worker tasks and processes revolve around them.
The characteristics of industrial robots will vary according to the manufacturers, the needs and the scenario in which they are to be located.
According to the international standard ISO 8373:2012, the industrial robot definition is ‘a multifunctional, reprogrammable, automatically controlled manipulator, programmable in three or more axes that can be fixed in one area or mobile for use in industrial automation applications’.
Industrial robots are not usually humanoid in form, although they are capable of reproducing human movements and behaviours but with the strength, precision and speed of a machine.
• Industrial robot and service robot: The difference here is done according to its intended application. As we read in IFR’s ‘World Robotics 2021’ report: Industrial robots are robots “for use in industrial automation applications” while a service robot “performs useful tasks for people or equipment, excluding industrial automation applications”.
According to the same report, the market for professional service robots grew by 12% in 2020, from a sample turnover of $6bn to $6.7bn. In addition, the global pandemic created new opportunities and additional demand for some service robot applications, e.g. cleaning or disinfection applications or other tasks in the healthcare sector such as telecare, transportation of food or supplies, administrative and logistical tasks, etc.
In fact, industrial robot components are increasingly being modified for applications outside the manufacturing environment. The aim is the integration of industrial robot systems into new markets, as in the example of robots in the healthcare sector above.
• Industrial robot and autonomous mobile robot: Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) are often used in industrial environments, but they do not meet the definition of an industrial robot as such: they have no manipulation capability and no three axes.
• Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) and Mobile Manipulator: The IFR classifies AMRs as service robots although, as discussed in the previous point, they are often used in industrial environments. If the AMR platform is equipped with a robotic arm, it becomes a mobile manipulator and would therefore count as an industrial robot.
Robotnik as a manufacturer of mobile robotic systems and as the above IFR classification states, is an expert in the development of AMR and mobile service manipulators, often marketed in industrial environments.
Nowadays, it is not only large companies that have access to industrial robots. More and more SMEs are experiencing an increase in profitability and a reduction in production costs by automating certain processes.
One of the objectives of industrial robotics is to optimise production lines making them more agile and adaptable to the specific needs of each customer.
Robotnik has been specialised in the development of industrial robotic applications based on platforms and mobile manipulators for 20 years.
Main areas where Robotnik’s industrial robots are integrated:
• Robotics in Logistics: autonomous mobile robots for the transport of materials in different areas and mobile manipulators that extend the working area of static collaborative robotic arms. Some logistics tasks where industrial robots are used are pick and place, metrology, packaging, polishing, screwing or drilling or palletising, among others.
• Robotics for inspection and maintenance: integration of robotic systems equipped with sensors or artificial vision in inspection tasks in areas that are difficult to access or dangerous for operators. These robots can operate autonomously or be controlled remotely by an operator.
Beyond industrial manufacturing environments, the use of mobile robotics has increased significantly in several sectors:
• Security and rescue: threat detection and assessment, real-time information gathering and transmission, transportation of goods… Autonomous mobile robotics has a lot to contribute in the area of security, rescue and defense.
• Robotics in Agriculture: AMRs are increasingly used for fruit picking, identifying the state of a crop, spraying or sorting to avoid food waste.
Robotics in Construction: Early error detection, automation of hazardous tasks or monitoring and inspection are just some of the tasks that an AMR can perform in the construction sector.
• Robotics in Healthcare: as mentioned above, it is already common to see collaborative robots in tasks such as transporting food or supplies, surgical assistance, telecare or administrative tasks.
Significantly improved robot system performances and an increased ease of use open up new automation solutions, many of which are outside the “classic” applications of industrial robots. Furthermore, robot manufacturers and system integrators are increasingly supplying flexible work cells with standard configurations, which can be rapidly integrated into existing production systems for standard applications.
This implies that even small-volume productions can effectively be automated in areas such as parts welding and cutting, flexible assembly and packaging and palletizing. Robot investments are becoming more and more profitable and hence become increasingly widespread within industry.
Case studies on industrial robots can be found here.
The reasons why companies consider investing in a robot system differ widely. Some factors include the positive effect on parts quality, increase of manufacturing productivity (faster cycle time) and/or yield (less scrap), improved worker safety, reduction of work-in-progress, greater flexibility in the manufacturing process and reduction of costs.
Main reasons for investing in industrial robots:
Overall, robots increase productivity and competitiveness. Used effectively, they enable companies to become or remain competitive. This is particularly important for small-to-medium sized (SME) businesses that are the backbone of both developed and developing country economies. It also enables large companies to increase their competitiveness through faster product development and delivery. Increased use of robots is also enabling companies in high cost countries to ‘re-shore’ or bring back to their domestic base parts of the supply chain that they have previously outsourced to sources of cheaper labor.
Collaborative industrial robots are designed to perform tasks in collaboration with workers in industrial sectors. The International Federation of Robotics defines two types of robot designed for collaborative use. One group covers robots designed for collaborative use that comply with the International Organization for Standards norm 10218-1 which specifies requirements and guidelines for the inherent safe design, protective measures and information for use of industrial robots. The other group covers robots designed for collaborative use that do not satisfy the requirements of ISO 10218-1. This does not imply that these robots are unsafe. They may follow different safety standards, for example national or in-house standards.
There is considerable variance in the types of collaborative robots meeting the above specifications, and the level of contact between robot and worker in collaborative applications. At one end of the technical spectrum are traditional industrial robots operating in a separate workspace that workers can enter periodically without having to shut off power to the robot and secure the production cell beforehand – a time-intensive procedure that can cost thousands of dollars per minute of machine downtime. The robot’s workspace can be fitted with sensors that detect human motion and ensure the robot works at very slow speeds or stops when a worker is within the designated workspace. At the other end of the spectrum are industrial robots designed specifically to work alongside humans in a shared workspace. Often referred to as ‘cobots’, these robots are designed with a variety of technical features that ensure they do not cause harm when a worker comes into direct contact, either deliberately or by accident. These features include lightweight materials, rounded contours, padding, ‘skins’ (padding with embedded sensors) and sensors at the robot base or joints that measure and control force and speed and ensure these do not exceed defined thresholds if contact occurs.
The market for collaborative robots is still in its infancy. End-users and systems integrators are still gaining experience on what works and doesn’t in the design and implementation of collaborative applications. Technology developments in sensors and grippers hold promise for expanding the range of actions that the robot end-effector can perform. Programming interfaces will continue to become more intuitive, not just for cobots, but also for traditional industrial robots.
In 2021, about 7.5% (39,000 out of more than 478,000) industrial robots installed, were cobots, an increase of 50% over 2020.
Artificial intelligence in robots gives companies new opportunities to increase productivity, make work safer, and save people valuable time. Substantial research is being devoted to using AI to expand robot functionality. Commercially available applications include the use of AI to:
For more information, please refer to the IFR Media Backgrounder on Artificial Intelligence in Robotics.
The IFR has identified five common scenarios in which robots are connected within broader automation strategies:
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