ABB’s FRIDA two-armed robots, from the ABB website
Everything Robotic looks at the shift in Robotics that is being spearheaded by Foxconn deploying one million industrial robots by 2014 Foxconn’s deployment will more than double the world’s industrial robot population. And it will do so outside of the auto industry.
A new breed of flexible industrial arms is on its way. Almost all major companies in industrial robotics are trying to bring to market a similar kind of robot to cater to the needs of new-age manufacturing. Traditional companies like ABB, KUKA, Yaskawa Motoman and Fanuc are trying to bring their robots out of their cages in a step by step manner of evolution, while new entrants and researchers are trying to build entirely new kinds of revolutionary devices.
The evolutionary robots are the 1-2-3 armed robots which have evolved from their older versions. These robots are highly suitable for large scale fixed factory-line processes. They have high precision but less flexibility to be a co-worker and need a lot of evolutionary steps to be able to accomodate medium scale dynamic environments.
On the other side are the revolutionary companies such as Heartland Robotics whose focus is to develop robotic assistants – the so-called “co-robots.” These will be more affordable, easily trainable, safe and flexible for human environment but not as precise as the evolutionary ones. And they will address the needs of the biggest manufacturing sector in the country: SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises.
The service robotics market, where most of the growth in robotics is happening, and which is not dominated by any single company or country (as is the case with industrial robots) is the market where there is hope for American manufacturing.
If any competitive breakthrough product(s) are to offset Foxconn’s plans, and the very-likely roll-out of the other foreign industrial robot makers to parlay Foxconn’s actions with new-industry deployments of their own, particularly in Asia, if some new true robotic assistant is developed that is low-cost, lower cost of entry, easy to train, flexible, and safe to work alongside humans, the first to market will create a whole new arena, a whole new marketplace, with new manufacturing jobs, and a whole new product family ushering in the “real” robotic age. That’s why everyone is so interested in Heartland Robotics. They are a privately-funded start-up focusing on a large, untapped market with a low cost product family perfectly matched up to the needs of the market. If they can pull it off, there’s hope. If not, some other company, somewhere else in the world, will do so and the global SME marketplace will be theirs.
Robots help keep costs down and productivity high. The cost of entry isn’t prohibitive but involves changing the mix of labor from skilled to very skilled. They are and will continue to be a staple in the manufacturing arsenal. Further, maintaining a homeland base of manufacturing is important for security, jobs, the balance of trade, and as part of sustaining a middle class. Robots can help, but national leadership can inspire the changes needed for America to play the role it has in the past, and wants for the future… a role which includes an ever-increasing use of robots in all facits of society.