• Image: Tetra Pak
    Image: Tetra Pak

Robots are poised to move into new industries and applications that previously could not use robot technology, thanks to a number of advancements making them easier to use.

The 2019 Robotics Innovation 2 Implementation report by APPMA associate organisation PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies in the US, found that 2018 represented a major step in expanding the use of general robotics.

“For the first time, industries like food, consumer packaged goods, and life sciences are expanding robotics applications across their entire production lines in significant numbers.

“This expansion into new industries with new applications impacts how robots are designed and where they are being implemented, as new emphasis must be placed on flexibility, versatility, intelligence, connectivity, and precision,” it says.

The entire manufacturing line has seen growth in the use of robotics in the last five years, most dramatically in processing and secondary packaging.

The number of US companies surveyed which used robotics for processing increased by 17 percentage points to 27 per cent; for secondary packaging, the figure rose by 22 percentage points to 70 per cent in 2019.

Primary packaging saw a nine-percentage-point increase to 53 per cent in 2019, while transport packaging, which was already in use by 66 per cent of companies surveyed in 2014, grew by seven percentage points to 73 per cent.

“Improvements in sensor technology, data analytics, and robotic components are driving robots that are more intelligent and flexible than ever before, enabling the wider adoption and expansion of robotics into new applications and industries,” the report says.

The report also notes that robotics usage is outperforming the forecasts: in 2014, companies forecast that robots would be operating in 82 per cent of US manufacturing plants by 2018; the actual figure was 88 per cent, expected to reach 90 per cent this year.

“In the next five years, it is likely that nearly all manufacturers will be operating robotics somewhere on the plant floor,” the report says.

Though robotics have been used in the automotive industry for decades, the share of North American robotics orders for non-automotive applications hit 47 per cent in 2018 – an all-time high, as the report notes.

“The market share gap for orders between the automotive and non-automotive industries is smaller than it has ever been since statistics were first compiled in 1984. In addition to this, shipments in 2018 increased in volume, but decreased in value.

“Taken together, these statistics suggest two key developments for the robotics industry: robotics usage has expanded significantly outside of the automotive industry, and the overall price of robotics has continued to steadily decline,” it says.

(Image: Tetra Pak)
Robots are becoming smarter and more able to learn by themselves. (Image: Tetra Pak)

Developments making robots more effective and easier to use have contributed to this growth. The improvement of visual and tactile sensors has boosted robot accuracy and safety, while cobots and smaller-sized robots are growing more affordable, even for small to medium enterprises.

“Physically smaller robotics have been growing as SMEs in particular show interest in utilising flexible, intelligent robots to enhance their manufacturing processes and provide assistance to their human employees,” the report found.

Additionally, the report continues, “big data” collection and analysis is enabling robots and artificial intelligence systems to become smarter and learn on their own.

“Manufacturing plants of tomorrow will utilise AI-powered robots capable of learning a variety of tasks, adapting to a changing environment, and operating from a single, unified controls system,” it notes.

The 2019 Robotics Innovation 2 Implementation report is available from PMMI at https://www.pmmi.org/report/2019-robotics-innovation-2-implementation.

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