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What’s Next for Robotics

by Brian Huse , Director, Marketing & PR
Robotic Industries Association

One day you will turn on your computer, punch up an online world where your avatar can assemble different objects to make a custom robot, test it in a simulation of your factory and have the real thing sent to your brick and mortar location. Sound far fetched? Consider this: robot simulation is already a rock solid technology, and today an online gaming world called Second Life delivers a similar experience to university students learning about architecture, and is even host to a burgeoning market for virtual cars from actual car companies.

"Die Casting Robot Cell with Human" courtesy of RIA Member Applied Manufacturing Technologies, as rendered in simulation software from RIA Member DELMIA.Back in the real world, don’t be surprised if convoys of robotic military vehicles eventually travel supply routes too “hot” for human operators, and commercial delivery fleets send robot assisted trucks on civilian roads providing relief and safer conditions for long haul drivers and those who share the roads with them. Meanwhile, thanks to their unique combination of productivity, precision and flexibility, you may well see a path to energy independence built on the backs of robots working in the fuel cell industry.

In the future, factory robots will not only set on pedestals bolted to the floor, but move around on booms, cranes, slides and wheels. They will have two arms and do more vision guided assembly. They’ll even cut and prepare raw food, pack it and handle it at distribution centers. At medical centers around the world, doctors will use robots to repair hips, hearts and treat cancer. Quality of life will go up with every new generation of robot.

Wait! (Screeching noise: think needle scratching across a vinyl album.) Robots are already doing these things. Many people look for a day when household robots cook, clean and take out the trash, but robots are already behind the scenes making bricks to build their houses and producing better and more affordable appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines and High Definition TVs.

Delivering the Next Generation of Robots
It’s true there aren’t robotic FedEx trucks on the road, yet, although in the U.S., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored million-dollar robotics competitions to foster advancements that can be applied in military and commercial fleets. If this application does one day become reality it will be a very different form of robotics and RIA will be happy to help draft safety and performance standards.

In the near-term, the Association is concerning itself with the next generation of industrial robots. Robot-human interaction is evolving and staff and member volunteers have already begun to examine how to safeguard workers and equipment. The industry has a stellar reputation for safety, and new technology is pushing us to find ways to maintain that legacy while eliminating physical barriers between man and machine.

Machine vision will certainly help take robotics to the next level, and machine vision will probably be part of the next generation safety solution. Off-the-shelf products already offer work cell protection based on 360-degree vision technology, and more robot controllers now come with built-in machine vision capability. Food processing is an area that will probably benefit from such advancements, as will other complex tasks such as random part bin picking.

Using a robot to locate and handle parts from a mixed lot is an application on the rise that benefits everything from lab automation to foundry applications. Even though it is common now, expect to see more robots used in drug discovery and other medical applications. In a place worlds apart from the medical industry is the foundry business, and although foundries have a hot, dirty and dangerous environment unlike the antiseptic confines of a medical lab, it is still ideal for robots (in fact, robots are commonplace in North American foundries).

What’s Next for RoboticsOne of the more exciting possibilities for robotics is how they can be applied in the alternative fuel market according to Raymond Puffer, Program Director, Industrial Automation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His labs won RIA’s Robotics Research Equipment Awards in 2005 to research robot applications for fuel cell manufacturing, and in an update at the 2007 Robotics Industry Forum he showed videos and slides of the progress in their research. He explained how only robots offer high volume automation solutions needed to make fuel cells commercially viable, and he emphasized the need to do it domestically.

“If we do not aggressively pursue R&D of fuel cell manufacturing methods and systems we may well find ourselves in the position of being leaders in the design and development of fuel cells, only to have the value added manufacturing performed off-shore,” said Puffer.

Indeed, robots usually offer an important advantage to domestic manufacturers and can keep jobs on home soil.

One company that knows a little something about automation is Corning Incorporated. Corning is a major player in the LCD glass substrate market and robots are key to their success. Corning prefers commercially available technology to custom machines, which is why robots are so attractive to them, and they constantly look for new ways to use this technology in their manufacturing process, according to Tom Yorio, Manager – Machine and Automation Systems. (Speakers from Corning shared insights into their needs and desires for robotic automation at RIA’s Robotics Industry Forum in 2007.)

RIA is the association for top robot makers in the world, and they are listening to the needs of user members like Corning. RIA member suppliers are helping to advance research in areas where robots will be used next, from enabling new forms of energy to saving lives. Many of RIA’s members commit extra time and resources so the Association can organize equipment grants for researchers, develop standards and help users find new and better ways to be successful with robots.

Expanding Success for Systems Integrators
More often than not, behind every good robot supplier is a great systems integrator, and the industry is poised to see even more activity for integration experts. RIA’s new President, Richard Litt, founder of Genesis Systems Group, has pledged to give the Association an expanded agenda for systems integrators. These are companies that provide practical automation solutions to customers with complicated needs, and have years of expertise and unique craftsmanship at their disposal. It is common for many of these companies to build their customer base on word of mouth and repeat business, and RIA is on a course to serve them in new and creative ways.

Today, you can quickly find local companies to build your system in Robotics Online through Find a Service and Find a Company. You can also find RIA integrators listed in the only “User’s Guide to Robot Systems Integrators,” which is on pages 28 and 29 of the RIA members-only 2008 Robotics Industry Directory (order your free copy).

RIA offers even more ways to find the company best suited to solve your particular automation challenge, from members-only functions like Connectioneering at the Robotics Industry Forum to floor space for solution centers at the biennial International Robots, Vision and Motion Control Show. In fact, an all-new Robotics Online (www.robotics.org) was launched in June of this year where integrators can fill up catalogs about their services, products, case studies, white papers and news – even videos.

The industry’s top suppliers and integrators belong to Robotic Industries Association, and some have chosen to invest in the elite Platinum level where they get more benefits and recognition. They are listed in the printed Directory according to the information available at publication time. Every company listed in this member’s only Directory is making a statement about their commitment to the industry. Every RIA member helps bring the future a little closer as demonstrated by their investment in North America’s only trade association dedicated solely to robotics.

If you want to know what’s next in the robotics industry, look to an RIA member – these are the companies you’ll see making the future. They stay informed, networked and involved and we are proud to have them.

For more information or to provide feedback, contact Brian Huse at bhuse@robotics.org or 734/994-6088.

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