An industrial robot, as the name suggests, is a robot used in manufacturing plants and similar organizations to move massive loads (production tools and components), assemble materials, and carry out a range of other programmed industrial tasks such as painting, welding, palletizing, product testing and inspection, to name a few. The robot could either be affixed to a spot on production floor, or could be mobile. Robots help perform tasks much quicker than humans, and also substitute for work that’s considered unsuitable or dangerous (work environments entailing solvents, heat, dust, etc.) for humans. Unlike human employees, a robot doesn’t get tired and can do the same task repeatedly for years together.

Industrial robot. Image credit: Flickr
An industrial robot at a Hyundai plant. Image credit: Flickr

Defining a Robot

Not every machine that automates tasks on the shop floor is a robot. Typically, an industrial robot setup comprises:

  • Tool: Also known as the end effector, the device is what comes in contact with products and components when the robot is at work.
  • Industrial arm: The arm helps move the tool. Generally, an industrial arm looks like a human arm, but it could also look different.
  • Control cabinet: It’s typically a robot’s brain.
  • Control panel and teach pendant: The control panel and teach pendant are tools the user uses to program and handle the robot. For example, the control panel helps alter programming or steer peripheral devices. Teach pendant is a handheld device used for programming different robots.

Vision System

Also called computer vision or artificial vision, robotic vision is essential for an industrial robot to identify parts for navigation, inspection, etc. The robot acquires the ability to view things courtesy vision algorithms, camera sensors, temperature software and calibration. With this, there isn’t any requirement for feeders, sorts, or any labour to orient or load parts onto the robot, thereby helping save money and time for the company.

Types of Robots

A dual-arm industrial robot. Image credit: Flickr
A dual-arm industrial robot. Image credit: Flickr

Traditionally, industrial robots can be classified based on multiple attributes. There are robots that enjoy a certain degree of movement or freedom. Cartesian robots (uses linear slides), Scara robots, 6-axis robots, redundant robots (fixed handle with movable elbow and shoulder joints, typically used for assembly and other repetitive tasks), and dual-arm robots are known for their mobility.

There’s another category based on robot application. This category entails robots specifically designed to perform processes such as welding, material handling, palletization, painting, and assembly. Some other industrial robots are classified based on their design or architecture, and brand or manufacturers.   

Advantages

An articulating end effector. Image credit: Flickr
An articulating end effector. Image credit: Flickr

Robots help companies save labour costs. Typically, a robot can single-handedly perform a job that needs multiple human workers. A robot increases productivity or the speed with which the tasks are carried out, and also reduces rework or waste.

Generally, a robot outshines humans in specific tasks as far as quality is concerned, particularly when high precision and repeatability, and accurate measurement and inspection is required. Robots used for inspection have sensors, which makes them highly effective at singling out defective items.

With a robot, there’s no chance for errors caused by fatigue, and one can expect it to perform jobs that require the highest concentration levels continuously. Whenever possible, companies may install robots for round-the-clock operations to extract maximum cost-effectiveness and productivity. Moreover, robots are not rigid. Most are versatile and can be reprogrammed to perform other types of work, if needed.    

Disadvantages

Industrial robots are expensive purchases. The robots need regular maintenance as well, which can turn out costly. Robotics implementation could lead to loss of jobs, and the work for the ones remaining may get reduced to simply supervising the robot. Though companies may have to pay less as employee salaries, the manual workforce may exhibit resentment and a lack of job satisfaction. In the long run, this negative work environment may hurt the company’s fortunes.

As aforementioned, industrial robots help speed up tasks and lend to higher accuracy levels. But it’s crucial to remember these robots cannot work without a plan, or they won’t rectify a bottleneck or a particular issue plaguing the system. Robots help if every stage of production is set right and all that it needs to do is help with speed, accuracy and performing hazardous tasks.

Also, robots are not independent; even the most sophisticated robots require human assistance or guidance. For this purpose, existing employees need to be trained for working with the robot, which costs money. And the training cannot be wrapped up in a few days. Employees have to invest some serious amount of time to completely learn how to use industrial robots. Their efficiency, as a result, goes down during this period, which ultimately affects the company.