Industrial robots began appearing in the early 1970’s when companies like Kuka Robotics introduced the first simple industrial robots. Robot development has accelerated rapidly ever since, with applications expanding from basic grinding and polishing to highly precise welding, palletizing, and autonomous bin-picking. The exponential growth of industrial robots began in the automotive industry and has expanded to many types of manufacturing applications. The increased use of robots has been driven by the fact that robots are able to turn any size manufacturer or business into a profitable global competitor by cutting labor costs and boosting production efficiency, all without sacrificing quality.
Robots are now in widespread use in the United States, from large automotive assembly line robots to efficient groups of palletizing robots in small machine shops. The Robotics Industry Association (RIA) reported sales of 25,500 robots in 2012 for a total of $1.66 billion dollars. That represents a 17% increase in robot sales from the previous year (27% more dollars). These increasing sales numbers indicate enormous growth potential in the future of robots, especially since the RIA estimates that only 10% of businesses that could benefit from using robots are currently using them. This makes the 225,000 robots currently in service in the U.S. only the tip of the iceberg. Robots will continue to be on the rise as the competitive global market drives the remaining 90% of companies to use robots to increase efficiency while maintaining or improving quality. This increase of industrial robots in the United States is also fueled by the recent trend of companies returning their operations back to the U.S. from overseas. Logistics simplification and better political conditions are bringing companies back, but the higher cost of labor in the United States is pushing more and more companies to automate. Another major factor in the increased use of robots is the recovery of the automotive industry. However, emerging applications for robots, like palletizing and automated bin-picking, apply to nearly all businesses and will have robots on the rise in 2013 and beyond. New capabilities are expanding the use of robots to different types of businesses like the food and consumer goods sector where Robotics.org notes that “orders jumped 31% in the first quarter of 2012.” This is just one of the many new business sectors that is beginning realize the potential of robots.
Specific robot models that exemplify the more advanced and efficient future of robots are the Motoman VA1400 welding robot, the FANUC M-1iA “spider robot” and the KUKA HA (“High Accuracy”) robot. The Motoman VA1400 is a highly advanced welding robot that stands alone in the industry with its seven-axis mobility. Other welding robots only maneuver on six axes, but the Motoman VA1400’s elbow-like seventh axis allows it to work in more compact areas on complex applications. This is valuable on products that require the robot to weld hard-to-reach areas. This increased mobility allows high quality welding to be done by fewer robots, taking up less space. The FANUC Robotics M-1iA is a great example of a unique, multi-limbed “spider robot” that can be used to efficiently perform pick-and-place operations. The FANUC M-1iA’s distinctive build allows it to have a great deal of dexterity to delicately handle a large number of different products with impressive speed and .2mm repeatability. The M-1iA is just one of FANUC’s line of “spider robots” which have a range of sizes, mounting options, payloads, and potential applications to suit each unique customer. Kuka Robotics has developed the Kuka HA (High Accuracy) series of robots that have industry-leading .1mm repeatability. Due to highly advanced gearing and servo technology the Kuka HA series is able to maintain its impressive accuracy and repeatability and still have a high payload capacity. With the payload and flexibility to have dozens of applications and the advanced technology to perform each of them so accurately that quality is never compromised, the Kuka HA series is the total package.
The future of industrial robots is certainly bright. With the combination of tremendous growth potential and ever-advancing technology making robots more efficient, effective, and economical robots will continue to be on the rise.