The finely choreographed ballet of a robotic assembly line is a staple of auto industry advertising.
And while many manufacturers prefer to keep their production processes out of the limelight, the mechanised poetry of a modern car plant has proved a potent symbol of an industry in full swing.
Sadly, the images from recent weeks paint a different picture — with robots in repose telling a tale of a sector in crisis.
But despite the problems facing car manufacturers, Prof Ken Young, one of the UK’s foremost industrial robotics experts, believes that not only is the robot industry in relatively rude health, but it could offer a potential route to survival for enterprising engineering firms.
Young, the affable director of Warwick Manufacturing Group’s Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre (IMRC), is in a perfect position to comment; he began specialising in robotics back in 1986, when the robot boom had just begun. ‘They were just starting to get into automotive at that point,’ he said, ‘in those days when we put in an automotive line we probably had 20 or 30 robots — the same line now would have around 200.’
And today, while most car makers worth their salt have a facility bristling with robotic technology, advances in this technology mean that robots are increasingly attractive to those areas of industry that are, as yet, relatively untouched by automation.
Advances in sensing technology are particularly significant. ‘Sensing advances are driving lots of other applications,’ added Young. ‘For instance, touch sensing means that you can now do force control, and therefore an awful lot of jobs you couldn’t do previously, where you ended up breaking things or just weren’t applying the right amount of force. Vision is also coming to the fore.’
A case in point is the astonishing rise of robots in the food and drink sector. ‘In the last quarter, for the first time in the UK, automotive was knocked off the top by food and drink,’ said Young. ‘It’s amazing for two reasons: first that automotive got knocked off and second that food and drink was so high.’
One robot proving particularly popular with the food and drink sector is ABB’s flex picker. Said to be the world’s fastest industrial robot, the system, which can be used to pick and sort items on a production line, is capable of two pick-and-place actions per second, and 10g of acceleration [0 to 280mph in one second]. ‘It’s all carbon-fibre arms, parallel linkage mechanisms and is driven by vision systems linked into conveyors; it has got some pretty good technology in there,’ added Young.
The latest version of this robot — the IRB 360 — is already being used by a number of food and drink companies, and similar systems are finding applications throughout the sector. With Young estimating that humans still account for around 99 per cent of that particular industry’s workforce, there are clearly big opportunities here.
Alongside the speed and sensing developments that have driven the wider uptake of industrial robots, continued advances in processing technology will further advance the capabilities of robots, believes Young. ‘A lot of what has held these industrial robots back is the speed of the processors: how fast we can go through the control loop and how complex we can make that control loop. The faster you can go round it and the more you can do, the more sensory input you can use to do more intelligent control — that’s all going to come through in the next four or five years.’
Such advances will, he suggested, enable engineers to make better use of some of the more esoteric industrial robots that are beginning to emerge. Machines such as the SDA10, one of the world’s first twin-armed industrial assembly robots.
Developed by Motoman, this eerily human-like machine is able to pick up an object with one hand while working on it with another — a capability that has until now eluded most industrial robots.
Young said that while manufacturers are, by and large, still trying to figure out what they could do with these systems, the novelty appeal has led to a number of them being deployed as robotic bartenders. ‘People will pay 50 per cent over the odds to have their drink served to them by a robot,’ he added. ‘The really clever bit will be someone saying “ok now I’ve got this capability, look what can I do to my product design so that I can do something that I couldn’t make before at an economical price”.’
Part of Young’s role, both at the WMG and as the chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA), is to get UK manufacturers thinking about these issues. And he readily admits that while robotics is doing well globally, trying to persuade British industry to use robots where they should is an uphill battle. ‘The UK is lagging way behind and could be doing an awful lot more — there are some systems around but nothing like enough — we tend to use cheap labour rather than trying to automate because it’s a zero investment and you can get rid of them in a downturn,’ said Young.
With much of this cheap labour now disappearing as many of the UK’s economic migrants return home, Young believes that investment in robotics is more important than ever. ‘Robotics can keep industries alive in the short term,’ he said, ‘there is no doubt that if the automotive industry hadn’t automated then we wouldn’t ºhave one today.’
While promoting these wider issues, Young also finds time to turn his attention to some of the finer technical details. For instance, in one long-running project with Jaguar Land Rover, the IMRC has been looking at the joining challenges raised by the car maker’s desire to use more lightweight materials. ‘They want to use lightweight materials and because of that all the joining processes change, so you’ve got to adapt the processes,’ he added.
One particularly promising process is laser welding, and Young and his team have been working on the development of laser-welding tools that can be mounted directly onto robot arms. ‘We’re doing quite a bit of work on using the robot as a delivery mechanism for high-power lasers,’ he explained. ‘One of the issues there is the speed of the optics on the end; the robot doesn’t have to move very quickly providing the mirror on the end can move very quickly and focus on different areas. That gives you quite a complex problem in that you’ve got a six degrees of freedom robot and a mirror mechanism on the end and you have to tie the whole lot in.’
This work could also help feed into efforts to help industry reduce the amount of investment it puts in to making a new product. ‘A key factor for the UK is that a lot of our products sell at lower volumes, you’ve got to be able to get your investment back over a smaller number of vehicles and that’s an area where laser welding comes in. It allows you to reduce tooling costs and it is also a very fast process: you could do more of the vehicle in a single cell.’
Ultimately, though, Young believes that the biggest automation challenge facing the car industry is designing robotic production lines that can respond to unpredictability. ‘When you launch a vehicle, you have no idea how it is going to sell,’ he said. ‘When you come to do a facelift after the first year, which parts of the vehicle are you going to change? What new technologies are going to come along that force you to do something different to stay up with the crowd? It’s those things that no one can predict at the point where you build a line, but that line is going to have to build that vehicle.’
And this, he added, is just one of the reasons that robots will never render humans completely redundant. ‘I don’t think you’ll ever get to full automation with no humans. At the end of the day it is the humans that make the automation work and you need somebody in there to make sure everything is working properly and to try and continuously improve it. Every time you build a new line you learn and work out that what you design and build isn’t quite as good as it could be. We’ve been doing it for 30 years — but there is still a long way to go.’