Can robots reboot manufacturing in Europe?
What happens when humans and machines work together
Since the mid-1990s manufacturing’s share of the European Union’s GDP has fallen from 21% to 15%, and this decline has been partly due to competition from developing economies. However, over time the collaboration between humans and robots has evolved and grown in importance on the factory floor. This trend has the potential to reignite competition and stimulate production in the European manufacturing industry, as well as drive a wave of reshoring back to European countries. But what exactly is driving it?
Innovation in human-machine interfaces
When using electronic devices, humans constantly seek a natural interface – voice activation, touch screens or augmented reality – and engineers have worked hard to enable this in a range of technologies through open platforms and standardised programming. In the manufacturing environment, there have been significant advances in Human Machine Interface (HMI) applications in the last decade to create standardised, easier to program, sensitive and agile robots, fit for the next generation of automated and advanced factory production processes.
As a result of this innovation, high-quality goods can be brought to market faster than ever, the factory workforce can be deployed more flexibly, and more operational efficiencies can be identified. Moreover, as the worker-machine interface becomes more ‘human’, the quality of interactions improves, reducing industrial accidents and mitigating against process failures.
Increasing customer expectations
The growing desire amongst consumers to ‘individualise’ their purchases is another driving force behind simpler programming of robots. For example, when buying a car, a consumer might want to customise their car online to their exact specification, hit the ‘purchase’ button and have the car delivered in a week or two. The increased use of robots – and ones that are straightforward to program – is critical to meeting this expectation; previously the process would entail lengthy conversations across multiple geographies and suppliers, manual process intervention and extensive highly-skilled human time to program any robot contribution.
Automated manufacturing is particularly vital to the automotive industry, where there is currently a fierce scramble for market share in the electric car category. There are far fewer components to an electric car than a diesel or petrol equivalent, creating more opportunities to automate the build process and accelerate time to sale. For example, robots are already being used for car battery block production, when adding cells to bigger battery packs and during the chemical processes.
Greater robotic precision and autonomy
HMI applications are helping to produce more precise, reliable, speedy and autonomous robots, which maintain constant productivity and quality levels for consistent and optimum manufacturing output. For instance, Epson has equipped its highly customisable and intuitive dual-arm robots with vision and force-sensing functions, so they can independently and accurately recognise objects, make decisions and adjust the amount of force applied to a process. Not only are the Epson robots easy to teach and task with activities, but they also use common general purpose tools, and can be simply relocated and reinstalled elsewhere in the factory to accommodate a flexible production system.
Ranging from the entry level SCARA T3-Series through to higher-end LS-Series and G-Series models, Epson robots are successfully helping an array of industries with a range of different tasks such as picking and placing, assembling automotive components, creating medical equipment, packaging medications and automating laboratory processes.
The rise of smart factory automation
HMI technology is driving greater human and robot collaboration, and combined with simpler programming, customer demand and more precise and autonomous robots, we are creating a path for smart factory automation. This will help to reboot the European manufacturing industry, as the increasing adoption of automation and robots will see a wave of reshoring. After all, it won’t matter where the factory is located, as the cost of a machine is the same wherever it is placed.