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Industrial Robots and Factory Automation, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 8373 defines industrial robots as being automatically controlled, reprogrammable, featuring a multipurpose manipulator capable of movement in three or more directions, including linear or rotational movement.  It may be either fixed or mobile.
The type of joints used industrial robots indicate the classification and potential uses of a robot. The primary types of joints include:
Revolute joints—may include a hinge, a pin or an axle. They have one degree of freedom (DoF).  That is, they can move in one direction or one manner.
Prismatic joints—also have one DoF.  They move along a fixed axis.  That is, they are pistons or similar sliding objects.
Spherical joints—with three DoFs.  They can rotate or pivot around a round bearing.  Ball joints used in automobiles are spherical joints.

Industrial robots are further classified by their mechanical organization:
=         Articulated robots—feature an arm that can closely resemble the movement of a human arm.  The arm may have several joints that are revolute joints.
=         Cylindrical robots—feature an arm and design that do well in circular workspaces.  They may include a combination of revolute and prismatic joints.
=         Cartesian robots—feature an arm that has prismatic joints only and tend to be linear in action.  This type of robot typically has great strength and lifting capacity.  A gantry robot is a related type of cartesian robot.
=         Parallel robots (also known as “parallel manipulators”)—consist of three or more rotary or prismatic rotation points (axes).   They can be used to manipulate large loads.  A flight simulator (used to train pilots on the ground in a virtual environment) may be manipulated by a parallel robot.
=         SCARA robots (Selective Compliance Arm for Robotic Assembly, or Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm)—a robot used to install components and move parts.  It can mimic the motions of a human arm.

     An additional, informal classification of robots is collaborative robots, or “cobots.”  This refers to robots that work closely alongside human workers, with the intent of making repetitive tasks easier and faster to complete.
The automotive and electronics industries have been prime drivers of robot sector growth in recent years.  The largest markets for sales of robots are China, Korea, Japan, the U.S. and Germany.  U.S. investment in factory automation and robotics is expected to be very substantial in coming years.  China is investing very heavily in both robots within its factories and the development of its own robotic technologies.
China used its massive population base (1.4 billion), low wages and heavy investment of funds by both government agencies and corporations (domestic and foreign), to become a massive manufacturing engine over several decades.  Today, however, China is at a dramatic point of change, with rapidly rising wages, an aging population, a shrinking workforce and very effective competition from lower-cost nations such as Vietnam.  Consequently, China is seen as one of the highest growth markets in the world for factory automation.  Chinese government policies focus on automating many key manufacturing and technology sectors, including automobiles, electronics, home appliances, logistics and food production.  Chinese robotics makers such as Anhui Effort Intelligent Equipment and Siasun Robot & Automation are expected to compete heavily against Western companies like Adept Technology for dominance in the global robotics market.  Artificial intelligence and automation are a particular focus of China’s long-term plans.  Robotics companies plan significant investments in China-based factories and marketing efforts to capture their share of this market.
China’s government launched an initiative to make billions of yuan available for manufacturers to upgrade their facilities and technology with robots.  The region of Guangdong pledged to invest $150 billion in industrial robotic equipment and the creation of two centers for advanced automation.
Robotics will not only help China with its workforce challenges while restraining total wage costs, it will also assist China in its vital effort to move its manufacturing upmarket into aerospace, medical technology and other sectors requiring very high levels of manufacturing precision and quality.

Pros and Cons-Are Robots Stealing Jobs?
Taiwanese venture capitalist and artificial intelligence (AI) expert Kai-Fu Lee forecasted in early 2019 that 40% of global jobs will be replaced by robots capable of automating tasks, particularly those relating to self-driving cars and trucks over the next 15 years.  It remains to be seen whether such a high level of jobs might be affected.  On the positive side, if prices decrease due to robotics in sectors such as auto manufacturing, consumers may have more to spend which will create jobs in other sectors.  Deloitte Consulting expects 2 million new positions in the manufacturing sector by 2025 through the development of new technologies. 
In order to fill those jobs, workers will require extensive training in advanced factory automation systems and computerized machine tools.  Meanwhile, faster, cheaper robots are becoming available, making them affordable (as little as $25,000) for small to medium-sized factories.  What remains to be seen is if the expected wave of new robotic technologies, such as drones and driverless cars, will spill over with further negative effects on employment and wages.

     In the automotive sector, General Motors (GM) is working with Fanuc, a Japanese robotics manufacturer, Cisco Systems and Rockwell Automation to monitor robots and plant working conditions (such as temperature and humidity).  Gathered data, stored in a cloud network, is analyzed and workers can service robots before they break or alter conditions to limit costly downtime when robots fail.
The future of the robotics and factory automation industry is extremely bright.  China is a perfect example of the types of trends that will drive the industry forward:  rising wages, a rapidly growing manufacturing sector, soaring global trade in manufactured goods and demographic challenges.  Combined with today’s very low penetration of robotics in most of the world’s nations, dramatic increases in industrial robotics sales will occur for decades to come.  Industries that will rely more and more on robotics and automation include food processing, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, logistics and warehousing, automobile manufacturing, chemicals and textiles.
New cutting-edge robots allow humans to work alongside them.  Thought to be too dangerous until recently, new models such as Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics, “learns” new tasks when a human moves the robot’s arms through an operation.  Baxter is in use on U.S. conveyor lines helping package items.  Auto maker BMW uses heavy assembly robots made by Universal Robots to help humans complete final vehicle door assembly.
The transportation and logistics sector will be heavily influenced by robotics.  For example, giant robots are in use at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach in the U.S. to unload container ships and move cargo containers on the docks.  The Port of Long Beach has an automated terminal with a capacity of handling 3.3 million 20-foot container units yearly.  Industry analysts estimate that robots can improve dock productivity by as much as 30%.

SPOTLIGHT:  Robots as a Service
In a model similar to subscription-based software (SaaS or software as a service), businesses of all sizes may now have the option to pay monthly or annual fees to rent robots rather than purchase them outright.  Costs per hour for basic manufacturing systems may run between $10 and $12, less than hiring human workers which are in short supply.  Leading providers in this area include Formic (, Robex ( and Rios (

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