by Volker Spanier, Head of Robotics Solutions for Epson Europe
Robots have transformed the workplace and will take industries to new levels in the coming years as technology, workplace practices and industry processes become increasingly innovative. To date, robots have notably taken their place in large-scale production, but advances in robotics technology are presenting sizeable productivity and profitability opportunities for a wealth of industries where more small-scale, lean and agile operations are required. As the market share of robots is expected to surge over the coming years, the market is turning to trusted, market-leading brands such as Epson for support. Even though there is some way to go until robots become the norm, innovative robotics technology is supporting the move towards a more nimble and sophisticated robotic workforce every day.
In fact, the number of industrial robots deployed worldwide is expected to increase to around 2.6 million units by 2019. That is about one million units more than in what was previously considered record-breaking back in 2015. Furthermore, next to the rise in the number of industrial robots, advanced cobots (‘collaborative robots’) are expected to increase too. While they only accounted for 5% of global robot sales in 2015, Barclays Equity Research estimates that this $120 million market could jump to $3.1 billion by 2020 and $12 billion by 2025. That would mean 150,000 cobots sold in 2020 and 700,000 in 2025.
This is all happening because robotics are opening doors to more opportunities for local production (reshoring) and the development of more tailored products for consumers (personalisation). In addition, as increased cooperation with humans, including physical cooperation, becomes apparent, novel business models and deployment strategies are entering other industries including services in healthcare and hospitality. As these demands grow, and innovation evolves, smaller, smarter and more nimble robots are becoming the clear contenders to match the fast-paced and dynamic requests of consumers around the world, as well as the growing sense of sustainability.
To support this, market leaders are advancing access to these technologies. The price of robots is coming down as more entry-level robots become available for purchase directly from websites. As such, the possibilities of offering a modular approach to robotic solutions are becoming more apparent as are robot systems that can be sold at a low cost and adapted by the end user.
The capacity of robots to adapt to different products or needs is improving at breakneck speed too. While they may still be ten or so years away from the dexterity needed to pick strawberries as well as a human can, developments in sensing technology such as Epson’s Force Sensor, are already enabling robots to automatically modulate the force they apply to objects. This is rapidly expanding their capabilities and allowing the automation of complex tasks that formerly required human sensory perception. In fact, certain robots can now work at speed with incredible precision, picking up and sorting elements that are neither aligned nor identically positioned.
In practice, the advent of all of this can be seen in the reshoring activities of two well-known European apparel manufacturers – Adidas and Mango. Adidas has recently set up a speed-factory near Ansbach, allowing the production of a shoe in five hours from start to finish. Mango’s decision to reshore some parts of production is mainly for the same reasons. Thanks to the benefits brought by new technologies like robots, 3D printers and body scanners, they hope to be able to develop new collections every two weeks instead of three. For both companies, although large-scale production remains elsewhere, robotics technology is allowing them to react faster to market changes by shortening the value chain and moving production closer to the end-user.
New robots such as the Dual Arm, currently in the final stages of development, from Epson aim to go one step further and eliminate the need for detailed programming by allowing the robot to create its own preferred trajectories and actions based on specific objectives. This ease of programming reduces the need for a specialised skill set to manage the robot, and allows for one machine to be relocated and reused within a factory for multiple tasks.
The growth of robotics in Europe continues to pose questions for the labour market. Robots may not yet be able to pick strawberries or thread laces but they are learning fast, understandably for some this is seen as a potentially worrying development as robots are able to take on roles previously occupied by humans. Others point to a different scenario however; yes, robots will take over some jobs, but as with previous industrial revolutions in the past, new ones will likely also be created.
In a few years, we will all look back and relate to robots going through the same process as the smart phone: remember the size of the first mobile phones that have now transformed into our essential, go-to mini-machines smaller than our back pocket? Robots will continue to get smaller, smarter and more sensitive – and it is nothing to be concerned about. In fact, it is more a case of being prepared for a future where our jobs are more stimulating and creative, where we have access to more personalised solutions and greater access to goods. As robots become more nimble, we humans must too.