Knowledge Base

Industrial Robotics

Introduction to Industrial Robots

Robotics is a major component of the industrial revolution called Industry 4.0. With the current Covid pandemic and mandatory social distancing, it is expected to be in significant demand not only to help address the scarcity of labour and labour management problems, but also to provide humanlike services and capabilities. The rapid pace of technological advancements, especially in the field of artificial intelligence and natural languages processing has made it easy for humans to interact with robots. More than anything, it is a psychological advantage to be able to talk to a machine in almost natural language, and this is quite useful in say, the medical healthcare field. However, industrial robotics is a different field altogether, one where automation, precision and efficiency are extremely important. But before we dig a bit deeper in industrial automation and how it benefits production, let us first understand the small but significant difference between automation and robotics.

Difference between Automation and Robots
Industrial robots are nothing but advanced automation systems. Since we are focusing on industrial robotics, let us make the distinction between automation and robots clear with the help of an example in manufacturing.  

Cranes are an integral part of the manufacturing industry. The primary purpose of a crane is to move and transport objects. Depending on their use, cranes can be classified as overhead cranes, tower cranes, etc., but their basic purpose is to move objects from one point to another. These cranes automate the task of lifting an object and shifting it with the help of mechanical claws or jaws. However, what separates an automated crane from a robotic crane is that the automated crane ultimately requires a human operator. Both the crane and a robot possess a number of links attached to each other, both will have a number of actuators, but the basic difference is that the actuators of the crane are driven by a human, while a robot functions with the aid of computers and robotic software. Essentially, robots are controlled by computers, or more precisely, by the software that runs the computer. If you change the software program, the motion of the robot changes accordingly. A crane is dependent on the skills of the operator, and cannot perform the task of moving objects without an operator. In short, automation requires human supervision for optimal performance; robots do not.

Characteristics and Parts of an Industrial Robot
The ISO 8373:2012 standard defines industrial robots as automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which can be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications. Here is an extremely short explanation of all the terms:

Reprogrammable: means that the industrial robot is designed so that the programmed motions or auxiliary functions can be changed without physical alteration
Multipurpose: it is capable of being adapted to a different application with physical alteration
Physical alteration: alteration of the mechanical system (the mechanical system does not include storage media, ROMs, etc.)
Axis: direction used to specify the robot motion. It can be either a linear or rotary motion

Of course, there are different definitions of what constitutes an industrial robot. But whatever the definition, one important feature of a robot is the ability to operate automatically, on its own. This means that there must be in-built intelligence, or a programmable memory, or simply an arrangement of adjustable mechanisms that command manipulation. Typically, the servo system and communication interface are technically opened to users. In many advanced industrial robots, the robotic CAM system acts as a practical data interface between the industrial robot and commercially available CAD system like PTC Creo, so that the robot can move in real time along a desired trajectory generated by CAD / CAM systems without the need for teaching.

Here are the major parts of a typical industrial robot:
Computerized controller: this is what differentiates a robot from simple automation. The computerized control system coordinates each component of the robot for proper operation. By tweaking the programming, you can tweak the industrial robot’s movements.

Articulated arm: In industrial robotics, a manipulator arm is composed of a series of links connected to each other by joints.The joints can be of rotation or of translation and used for the motion of the links. These arms can be used to attach equipment such as clamps, welding weapons, paws, hooks, etc.

Sensors: The sensors of a robot identify and evaluate the geometric and physical properties of objects in their surrounding environment, such as position, orientation, velocity, acceleration, distance, size, and so on.

Actuators: Actuators are the mechanisms that control each of the robot axes and maintain the direction of moving. Since robots need to handle weights from various components, it has a larger change in motion. Therefore, the motion of actuators is very important.

While most robots share some basic characteristics like controller, sensors, power kit, what really separates an industrial robot from the other types of robots is the presence of robotic arms. In the context of industrial applications, a robotic arm is the most important part of the robot. Robotic arms are programmed to do all kinds of tasks - from painting, welding, material handling, packing, bottling, and assembly line work to material storage. Depending upon their use, robot arms can be classified in different ways, which we will cover in another article.

Classification of Industrial Robots
There are various ways of classifying industrial robots; we are classifying them on the basis of method of control for the purpose of this article.

  • Non-servo or pick and place: also called as limited sequence manipulators. They use mechanical stops to set two stopping positions on each axis.
  • Point to point robots: these industrial robots have servo position control of each axis and can go through a sequence of specified points.
  • Continuous path robots: these do not go through a finite target points. In theory at least, they can move along a smooth path of any shape, with continuous variation of speed as the arm moves along the path.

Benefits of Industrial Robots
Robots are extremely useful in industrial applications. There are certain tasks involved in aerospace engineering or other mechanical engineering disciplines ( eg. – automotive, industrial machinery, heavy engineering, consumer goods)where extreme precision is needed, and where robots are preferred. On an assembly line, robots eliminate tedious and tiresome tasks, increasing output and reducing operational costs. Another important use of robots in industry is the assembling of batteries. The process of assembling industrial batteries generally creates large payloads, lead dust, and molten lead which prove to be harmful for human labourers. Robots reduce the health hazards to workers by automating this task. Yet another example of robots protecting human lives is in the disposal of harmful chemicals. Previously, this task was undertaken by humans, and it involved tremendous amount of risk.

Here are a few benefits of industrial robots:

  • Precision, accuracy and efficiency
  • Flexibility because of software coding – a single robot can be configured to perform different tasks
  • Eliminating industrial hazards that are dangerous to human beings
  • Increase in productivity
  • Longer working hours

One of the main deterrents in buying a robot is the cost. While the initial cost of purchasing a robot is on the higher side, it pays for itself in the long run. And as technology marches on, the cost of industrial robots will gradually come down.

Another disadvantage is the expertise needed to program it. A robot is as good as its software, and while the initial set up of industrial robots requires a lot of training and expertise, the dividend they fetch in terms of efficiency, accuracy and speed more than compensates for the efforts put in to program it. That is why software like Altair HyperWorks, a multiphysics simulation platform, is one of the best for robotic simulation or analysis and other related applications such as structural analysis, kinematics & multibody dynamics and many more. It helps in design acceleration, enhances robotic performance, and facilitates robust product development.

So, do the advantages of using robots outweigh its disadvantages? Yes, if you are a forward looking manufacturing company. IIoT is integral to industry 4.0, and industrial robots are integral to IIoT. Industry 4.0 is primarily based on communication, computing power and efficient connectivity. With rapid advances in technology, it makes sense to ensure your future by investing in industrial robots and good robot programming software.