Robotics is fast changing the manufacturing landscape; let’s collaborate to bridge the gaps

Originally published by CME Manitoba

By Oyedele Ola, P.Eng. Manager, Technology Access Centre for Aerospace and Manufacturing, Red River College 

It is no news that robotics will play a pivotal role in the imminent 4th industrial revolution. With the rapid expansion and evolution of robotics, it is essential for manufacturing to stay ahead of the curve. There is a plethora of technology and knowledge gaps across industries, so Red River College is working to bridge this gap with applied research and partnerships, technology demonstration and specialized training programs to help with successful technology adoption and implementation. Robotics is fast-changing the manufacturing landscape, so let’s collaborate to keep up with this rapidly changing environment.

Industrial Robots

Industrial robots have been here for a long time and have been successfully used for various applications including welding, materials handling, assembly and inspection. We are familiar with industrial robots from Yaskawa, Fanuc, ABB, Kuka and many others. Robotics will not be the central theme of industry 4.0, but it is obviously one of the cardinal technologies that will shape the future of manufacturing. 

The number of robots on manufacturing shop floors will increase dramatically because of new possibilities that will result from this industrial revolution. There is a great deal of information on current and projected numbers of robots deployed in industrial environments, and all the numbers suggest an astronomical increase. Industry must be prepared for a total shift in the way manufacturing is done.

Traditional applications of robotics have suggested primary focus on benefits such as repeatability, increased productivity and higher product quality. Although industrial robots require a significant amount of operator training, strict safety guidelines (with robots enclosed in cells and cages) and initial capital investments, the end (benefits) justifies the means, especially for high-volume production. Also, industrial robots will continue to be deployed to handle tasks requiring extremely high precision, high speed of operation and heavy weight requirements. 

From mass production to mass customization, the scope of customers’ requirements has widened significantly. The new focus is on meeting highly customized requirements across various products in a fast, efficient and cost-effective way. One of the major drawbacks in using industrial robots for very low volume or one-time applications is the enormity of effort and cost required for set-up – so there is no business case to be made. However, the new paradigm in robotics is fast-changing the landscape. Robots are now being freed from their cages and becoming less of a burden to program and operate. Collaborative robots (Cobots) are here to change the age-old notion that robots are meant for high volume production applications only.

From Robots to Cobots

Generally, Cobots offer advantages currently unmatched by industrial robots including:

(1) Ease of set-up and deployment for unique applications. Most Cobots do not require expensive set-up. Also, Cobots are flexible to deploy for various applications including switching between tasks and locations. 

2) Ease of operation: as one of my colleagues says, “you can unload Sawyer (Rethink Robotics’ Cobot) from the truck and get him working for you under one hour without any programing experience.” The majority of Cobots are equipped with an easy-to-use operator interface, eliminating the need for programming training.

(3) Generally safer: Cobots are generally safer than industrial robots, with the majority able to work alongside humans. This is made possible by the integration of various force, speed and distance sensors with the robots.

(4) Return on investment: Cobots offer greater ROI benefits compared to industrial robots. To name a few, players in the Cobots industry include ABB (Yumi), Universal Robots (UR3, UR5, UR10), Fanuc (CR-35iA), Kuka (LBR IIWA), Yaskawa (Motoman HC10), Rethink Robotics (Baxter, Sawyer), etc.

From industrial robots to Cobots, there is a plethora of technology and knowledge gaps within the local industry. Therefore, research, technology demonstration and specialized training programs are required for successful technology adoption and implementation. This is where Red River College (RRC) is investing and contributing its quota to assist industry.

Bridging the Robotics Gap

The history of robotics at RRC dates back to 2009, with the establishment of the Centre for Aerospace Technology and Training (CATT) – a strategic partnership with StandardAero. The CATT features a number of industrial robots including the Motoman HP 50 and Motoman MH6 robots used for various laser and advanced arc welding processes.

The College began acquiring experience in robotics at the CATT industrial campus (with our suite of production-ready equipment), which has served as a research, technology evaluation / demonstration and training site for the aerospace and manufacturing industries. Over the years and through government and industry support, the College has invested in implementing other robotics programs including the establishment of the Notre Dame Campus Robotics Training Laboratory as part of the College’s Manufacturing Automation Facility. The robotics laboratory consists of 6 Motoman MH5 (training robots), Fanuc LR Mate 200iC, Motoman Dual-Arm SDA 10D, Motoman MH6 (welding robot), ABB IRB 120 and RRC’s first Cobot – Baxter. The robotics laboratory has been effectively used for training industry and College students for over six years.

The very near future of robotics at RRC will include the integration of different families of industrial and collaborative robots with automation, additive manufacturing, 3D laser measurements and digital inspection, autonomous factory vehicles, data acquisition and other advanced manufacturing capabilities within an industrial networked smart factory. Plans are underway to implement this initiative within a larger program framework of over $18M in capital investment, which is expected to create additional opportunities for industry collaboration and workforce development.

The College will continue to work with local industry, government and advanced manufacturing stakeholders in addressing technology and skills gaps in robotics. Red River College, through our Technology Access Centre for Aerospace and Manufacturing (TACAM), will continue to collaborate with aerospace and manufacturing organizations to meet applied research and workforce development needs. The future is robotic.

About the author

Dr. Oyedele Ola, P. Eng. is the Manager, Technology Access Centre for Aerospace and Manufacturing (TACAM), Red River College. TACAM supports both large and small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) by providing enhanced access to RRC’s technological assets, specialized facilities and subject matter expertise.