Industries in the 19th century were transformed by steam power, in the early 20th century by electricity, and in the later 20th century by automation. These technology revolutions impacted manufacturing processes, jobs, skills, and product quality to an increasingly greater extent. Today, with the rise of autonomous robots, contemporary automation, cyber-physical systems, the internet of things, the internet of services, and so on, the industrial landscape is again being transformed. Welcome to the age of Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution. Industrial robots, which are one of the key drivers in Industry 4.0, have evolved considerably since the last decades of the 20th century. They are becoming more productive, flexible, versatile, safer, and collaborative and are thus creating an unprecedented level of value in the entire ecosystem. Here we assess some of the latest industrial robots and how they could play an active role in shaping industrial practices by bridging the real world and the digital world.
Kuka’s LBR iiwa is claimed to be the world’s first series-produced, collaborative, lightweight robot for industrial applications that is designed for direct and safe human-robot collaboration without the need for any safety enclosure. The robot can utilized in industrial work environments without the need to fence off its working area, which makes its integration into human workspaces more economical and productive. The robot can learn from its human colleagues and can independently check, optimize, and document the results of its own work while connected to the cloud. Kuka believes that the range of possible applications for LBR iiwa in the factory of the future is virtually infinite and intends to redefine the term “universally applicable” in the context of light industrial robots.
Commercially launched at the Hannover Fair in April 2015, YuMi is the first collaborative robot from ABB. Similar to Kuka’s LBR iiwa, the dual-arm YuMi robot is designed to be inherently safe and to work side-by-side with humans. According to ABB, the robot is fully capable of handling anything with a very high level of accuracy thanks to its advanced vision system, dexterous grippers, part feeding systems, sensitive force control feedback, and flexible software that allows for programming through teaching rather than coding. Some of the target manufacturing markets for YuMi include consumer smart devices, toys, and watches. According to ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer, “YuMi is an element of our Internet of Things, Services and People strategy creating an automated future together.”
Bosch’s APAS family systems include “APAS assistant”, “APAS inspector”, and “APAS base”. At the heart of the APAS family is the “APAS assistant”, an automated production assistant which has a sensor skin that enables it to avoid collisions. This makes it suitable for a wide range of applications in which it will work together with people in a safeguard-free workplace. “APAS assistant” is the first robot system to be certified for collaborative operations by the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV) association. The other two robots in the APAS family, “APAS inspector” and “APAS base”, are meant for a mobile optical testing system with 3D imaging and a flexible automation platform for specific tasks such as parts labeling respectively. According to Bosch, the APAS family systems will offer a glimpse of the technologies that will be put to work in the next phase of connected industry.
Nextage robots from Kawada Industries are another type of collaborative robot that is primarily developed for assembly of parts. According to Kawada, the Nextage robots are currently able to work at 80% of a human working speed. The most interesting feature in Nextage is that its elbows don’t move outwards in its working environment, which ensures that robot is not likely to hit the human co-worker with its elbows. There are two versions of the robot, one for the industry and the other for research projects. The research version, HIRO, is being tested in various pilot projects worldwide. In association with Tecnalia Research & Innovation, one of the high profile pilot projects is taking place at an Airbus production plant at the Puerto Real Plant in Cádiz, Spain.
These are just a few examples of robots that are ready for Industry 4.0, and there are still many more being developed and deployed worldwide such as Sawyer from Rethink Robotics, Roberta from Gomtec (acquired by ABB), the UR series from Universal Robots, CR-35iA from Fanuc, BioRob Arm from Bionic Robotics, P-Rob from F&P Personal Robotics, Speedy-10 from Mabi Robotic, and PF400 from Precise Automation. All of these robots are part of the growing movement to create collaborative robots, which are robots that can execute multiple tasks as a flexible co-worker without traditional industrial safeguards. The industry’s expectations for these new age of robots are growing higher every day.