I have just returned from Automate 2017 in Chicago. This show continues to grow in its stature and importance for the automation industry.
As is normal anytime you attend a show like this, someone is bound to ask "So, what caught your eye walking the show today?” Most of the time they mean “What was the new widget or gadget you saw that looks like it could be the next game changer?”
There are certainly those instances where a new technology emerges and is introduced at a show like Automate, but this year I suspect when this question is asked, the resounding answer will be "It was all about the robots" - and if they were paying attention - "collaborative robots." We saw this trend start in earnest last year at Automatica in Germany, where nearly every integration provider present had a Universal Robot in their booth.
This year at Automate, I'd say we have just about come to the point where there were as many uncaged robots displays as caged. Give that some thought for a minute: as many uncaged (collaborative) robots as traditional industrial robots.
Just last year at IMTS, I was told by a FANUC engineer that "This collaborative thing is just a fad, we don't expect it to last more than 2-3 years”. Eighteen months ago at a RIA Collaborative Robot Workshop, Kuka's representative on stage said the primary value they see in their iiwa robot was as a way to get to new customers, then sell them their traditional industrial arm. Now, I'm not sure when the last time I saw a FANUC ad that didn't have a bright green robot in it. And whereas Kuka used to price themselves out of consideration, they just announced that they lowering their price from a jaw-dropping Lamborghini level to an E-Class Mercedes-Benz level.
I can't say that I am privy to the internal workings of Kuka or Fanuc, but it would certainly appear they are now taking this "collaborative fad" more seriously.
Collaborative Robot Growth
So what does this mean to the industry? At this point there are still more standard industrial robots being sold, but what about the next five years when the expected compounded annual growth for collaborative robots is expected to exceed 60%? Let’s say that there are 25,000 collaborative robots sold this year. In five years this will mean more than a tenfold increase to approximately 262,000 units. To put that in perspective, according to the International Federation of Robotics, there were $254,000 industrial robots sold in 2015. This means that at this rate, it will take less than a decade for collaborative robots to surpass standard industrial robots in the number of units sold.
When we consider the impact this will have on the robotics industry, how this will change the face of manufacturing is even larger. I have written about some of the possible ramifications in previous blogs, but the short of it is the goal should be to move towards jobs that foster the use of human potential for tasks far more valuable and rewarding than moving parts from A to B. Using technology like force limited robots has the advantage in that they can be more than just a piece of automation, they can be an extension of an employee’s productivity. Have we heard anyone long for the days when we had to use sledgehammers and spikes to bore tunnels through the sides of mountains? When we look at it in this light, the discussion changes from "robots will take my job" to "a cobot can improve my ability to contribute on the job."
In manufacturing, the typical expectation is that when productivity increases, profits increase. When profits increase, investment increases. When investment increases, this results in creating more jobs somewhere. If the investment is in new machinery, someone will be needed to run and maintain that equipment regardless of how automated it is.
When we look at it from the employee standpoint, if we can decrease the amount of non-value labor content, that labor cost can now be used for improving quality, adding more features, improving processes, and focus on what can differentiate their product from their competition by adding something that a machine cannot - the human touch of creativity and personal craftsmanship.
I have learned never to say never when it comes to automation technology. There have been a number of technologies that were poised to be the "one" and then mysteriously fade away into oblivion. For instance, anyone remember twenty years ago when PC-based control was heralding the end of the PLC? In this case, when we talk about collaborative automation, this isn’t about replacing an old technology with a newer one. This is about empowering an entirely new generation of improvements that we haven’t been able to consider before. My guess is that Pandora’s Box has already been opened and too many people have started to see the potential of what this technology can do to improve our futures. For those that see this potential early on, they will be the ones who truly have the advantage.