Facing challenges and anticipating the future of robotics

12th April 2024
Sheryl Miles

Comau is a global technology company that specialises in bringing the benefits of digital-driven advanced automation within a wide range of traditional and emerging markets, including those characterised by unstructured environments.

Designing advanced automation solutions means thinking about the industry in a new way, developing new scenarios, designing innovative products, and creating ways to streamline production processes. More than technical excellence alone, it requires a combination of talent, passion, and experience that unite to define new trends and pioneer new technologies.

Comau’s roots were forged in the automotive sector more than 50 years ago, and grew during a time when industrial automation was becoming the basis for mass production. Over the years, Comau have integrated many automotive lines for many customers around the globe, orchestrating hundreds of robots per line to build thousands of cars. They have also empowered our robots to gather and transmit acquired process and automation knowledge, and have implemented key technology enablers that transform conventional robotics into advanced robotics that can observe, plan, and proceed based on variable inputs. 

In recent years, however, and especially after COVID we have seen a rising demand for automation in sectors such as warehousing and logistics, food pharma, renewable energy as well as shipbuilding and the construction industry. Each of these, by the way, is expected to reach double digit growth in their demand for automation within the next seven years.

Some of these sectors, logistics, and fulfilment for example, still have a low level of automation, with some players that are just starting to introduce automation and robots in their processes. Comau estimates that up to 80% of warehouses have limited if any automation, and that will drive the logistics market growth that could reach $51 billion by 2027, growing an average of 10.7% per year. Especially applications like robotic picking and mobile robots utilisation are expected to grow at a rate close to 40% per year.

Bringing advanced automation to these industries has been a challenge until now for several reasons. Firstly, each is characterised by a dynamic, sensitive, or unstructured environment compared to that of a typical automotive plant. Traditional robotics, therefore, are not able to handle the required level of flexibility and versatility. In addition, most of these industries are faced with the lack of skilled workers when it comes to manufacturing and automation. There’s also the challenge of smaller footprints compared to what we find in the automotive industry. The combined result is a need to automate highly variable and/or complex process sequences within industries that have very little experience in automation.

Looking closer at the manufacturing environments, Comau sees a clear shift from the low mix, high volume, hardware-driven automation, typical of the automotive industry, to batch production with volumes as low as one unit. There is also a higher mix of products, greater variability of processes and the automation is often in unstructured environments, all of which calls for an increasingly software-driven automation approach.

What this means for the next generation of robotics is that automation solutions will need to be more sustainable and affordable than in the past. Even the automotive industry is asking for new business models, which include reprogramming and re-using existing robots for new lines, a greater interest in rental or leasing models, and new maintenance concepts for refurbishment.

Furthermore, next generation robots will help drive the adoption and deployment of new energy. An example of this is already happening with hydrogen, as one of the biggest challenges in terms of green hydrogen procurement is the fundamental need to automate the manufacturing process. The same is true for the installation of solar panels in the field; advanced automation in the form of outdoor mobile robotics is helping lower costs, increase quality, and speed deployment.

With fewer and fewer skilled production and logistics workers, small and repetitive tasks need to be automated; yet most operations have little available footprint for such automation. In these situations, cobots are a viable and valuable solution to automate certain handling tasks because they fit easily into small footprints, operate safely, collaboratively, and cost efficiently alongside workers and complement industrial automation lines rather than replacing them. 

Another scenario relates to unstructured tasks and environments. Traditional robotic programming is no longer efficient nor economically viable when automating highly variable processes and complex process sequences. The solution, therefore, is to use perception and sensor based robotics supported by AI to overcome these challenges. These tools allow us to maintain the performance of the automated processes despite process variability and an ever changing product mix. They also help lower the risk of unforeseen production or maintenance issues, thus optimising the total cost of operation in engineering through to manufacturing and maintenance.

We all know that software-driven mobile robotic solutions are already successfully automating very complex processes in warehouse automation and distribution centres. But when it comes to industries like construction or shipbuilding, there is a rising need for mobile manipulators. Comprised of a collaborative robotic arm mounted on an autonomous mobile platform, mobile manipulators are designed to work in the most intricate and unstructured environments, which are typically characterised by small spaces with no room for safety fences. Mobile manipulators offer software-driven safety in addition to being able to perform complex manufacturing and handling tasks while still being mobile.

To master automation in these dynamic industries, next generation mobile robots need to deliver maximum performance while dealing with very difficult conditions. Today, the robots have to drill, tomorrow they have to weld, and the day after they have to inspect the work of the day before. They therefore need to manage ever changing process variations and easily adapt to different applications without changing the system’s underlying software or hardware architecture.

With all the technological advances that are already happening, the driving question becomes how to accelerate the adoption of the next generation of robotics. We maintain that the answer is found at a software level. Given that advanced robotics are highly software driven, Comau believes there is a strong need for easy-to-use and easy to implement automation software to overcome the skills gap. This is especially relevant when it comes to robot programming and digital automation.

The next step in this direction, and we are very excited about it, comes from the work we are doing through our partnership with an amazing company – Intrinsic. An Alphabet company and Google moonshot, we are focused on meeting this challenge and working together on our joint vision of the next generation of robotics. Intrinsic has the resources and expertise to deliver a game changing software platform, and together we intend to make the next generation of robotics significantly more accessible for companies of all sizes and all industries.

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