Robots, Cobots Benefit Manufacturers, End Users
Robots are increasingly taking over manufacturing processes in the automotive industry, which has gladly welcomed these tools to reduce costs and improve performance. While some fear robots could replace human labor, these fears are unfounded, argued industry insiders during the “Robots, Cobots and Manufacturing Automation” panel of Mexico Automotive Summit 2022.
When robots were first introduced to manufacturing plants in the late 1970s, many industry workers worried that the robotic revolution was starting and would lead to the complete replacement of human labor. Instead, robots have allowed human workers to focus on higher-skill tasks by automating repetitive and low-skill labor. The emergence of cobots, collaborative robots intended for direct human interaction, has further changed the relationship between workers and robotic innovations as manufacturing processes continue adopting Industry 4.0 principles.
“The automotive industry has been the longtime leader and largest adapter of robotics,” said Jeff Burnstein, President, Association for Advancing Automation (A3) Mexico. A3 has long battled misconceptions regarding robotics, starting with their safety. The association developed the first American national robot safety standard in the 1980s, which then became the first implemented national robot safety standard. Safety measures and focuses have shifted as cobots require more direct human involvement, but the pandemic proved to plants how valuable these machines are in adapting to different safety standards. Many plants used cobots for sanitization or to implement social distance.
Robots and cobots are now being used in final assembly processes thanks to AI and machine learning (ML), which are expanding the amount of manufacturing processes these tools are able to improve, said Burnstein. As with most technological innovations in the sector, AI was also once feared despite it simply being machines learning to do their tasks better to improve productivity, he explained.
“Automation is enabling people to liberate themselves from repetitive tasks and monotonous activities in their working area,” explained Abraham Sosa, Key Account Sales Manager, Universal Robots. According to Sosa, Universal Robots is working on designing algorithms for real-time planning so robots can sense if something is obstructing their trajectory and adjust their movement in changing environments to prevent production halts. Solutions such as these will increase in the short term, which is why Mexico and Latin America must invest heavily in automation technologies to remain globally competitive, particularly in Mexico’s critical automotive manufacturing industry, Sosa explained.
There is a wide array of benefits to automating processes within automotive manufacturing. Aldo Luevano, CEO, Roomie, listed three main ones: cost reduction in manual tasks, improvement of current process performances and, most importantly, the ability to gather data. Real time data of robots’ operations can be used to improve the decision-making processes of organizations and manufacturers. According to Luevano, today’s robots avoid cloud dependency because of machine learning. “With machine learning, robots can change and adapt their behavior,” Luevano said.
Several other solutions are being rapidly developed to increase efficiency. Robots and cobots can increase operation efficiency by 20-23 percent, inventory control quality by 48 percent and productivity by 40 percent, according to Mauricio Blanc, Senior Director Customer Services and Senior Director Mexico, Omron Americas and Omron Automation. However, there are still challenges such as the rising threat of cybersecurity and that 50-60 percent of today’s robots are not connected.
According to Blanc, worker unions have reacted positively to the addition of robotic machines into plants once they understand that they are not being used to substitute humans but to handle mundane and even dangerous tasks, leaving room for workers to receive training for higher-skill tasks instead. “Repetitive and dangerous tasks should be yielded to robots and people should focus on tasks that add value to the automation,” Blanc said.
From a metrology point of view, using robots to detect errors in production before costs escalate is just one of the many solutions this transformation is bringing. ZEISS Car Body Solutions’ Joseph Heizmann and Hubert Waltl found that increasing investment in robots and metrology led to more revenue for manufacturing companies. “Using robots in metrology is enabling systems to detect errors rapidly, allowing for faster solutions and reduced costs,” said Mauricio Rosales, Carbody Sales Manager, Zeiss Industrial Metrology.
But these innovations are not only resulting in benefits for manufacturers, they also bring improvements for the end customer. According to Felipe Rivera, Managing Director Mexico and Latin America Mitsubishi Electric, automation enables the automotive industry to reduce the energy it uses. This leads to more sustainable processes, a growing demand by consumers. Furthermore, by increasing manufacturing efficiency, automation results in safer vehicles being sold to the market and a minimized margin of error in the vehicles humans drive.
“Automation is leading societies to more sustainable and happier lifestyles,” Rivera said.