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Happy National Engineers Week! Robotics dominate recent news

Feb. 20, 2024
A Control Intelligence podcast with editor-in-chief Mike Bacidore

In this episode of Control Intelligence, editor-in-chief Mike Bacidore celebrates National Engineers Week and recaps the week that was in news.

Transcript

Founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, National Engineers Week, which runs from February 18th to February 24th this year, is dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers.

Engineers Week is a formal coalition of more than 70 engineering, education and cultural societies, and more than 50 corporations and government agencies. Dedicated to raising public awareness of engineers' positive contributions to quality of life, Engineers Week promotes recognition among parents, teachers and students of the importance of a technical education and a high level of math, science and technology literacy. It is designed to motivate youth to pursue engineering careers in order to provide a diverse and vigorous engineering workforce. Each year, Engineers Week reaches thousands of schools, businesses and community groups across the United States.

As we celebrate Engineers Week, let’s take a look back at the news from this past week, which was dominated by robotics.

After record orders in both 2021 and 2022, robot sales in North American declined by 30% in 2023, according to the latest report from the Association for Advancing Automation, commonly known as A3. Companies purchased 31,159 robots in 2023, compared to 44,196 ordered in 2022 and 39,708 in 2021.

The 2023 orders were divided almost equally among automotive, where 15,723 robots were sold, and non-automotive companies, where 15,436 robots were sold. This accounted for a 34% drop in sales to automotive OEMs and automotive suppliers over 2022 and a 25% total decrease in all other industries.

While robot sales naturally ebb and flow, the return to more typical robot sales after the last two record years can likely be attributed to a few obvious issues: a slow U.S. economy, higher interest rates and even the over-purchasing of robots in 2022 from supply chain concerns, said Jeff Burnstein, president of A3. A slowdown in the manufacturing of electronic vehicles this year, along with fewer new distribution centers, likely are responsible for the reduction in demand for robots, said Burnstein. Based on member surveys and conversations at recent events, he said optimism is strong for growth, potentially picking up in the second half of the year.

In 2023, the strongest demand for robots from non-automotive companies came from the metal industry, followed by semiconductor and electronics/photonics; food and consumer goods; life sciences, pharmaceutical and biomedical, plastics and rubber. While each of these industries showed an overall decline compared to 2022, the last three months of the year saw higher sales in automotive, metals, semiconductor, electronics/photonics, plastics and rubbers.

A3 is the global advocate for the benefits of automating. Its members represent more than 1,280 manufacturers, component suppliers, system integrators, end users, academic institutions, research groups and consulting firms. New members were elected to A3’s Technology Strategy boards.

Jane Heffner of Mobile Industrial Robotics; Scot Lindemann of Mission Design & Automation; and Melonee Wise of Agility Robotics are the newly elected members joining the A3 Robotics Technology Strategy Board.

Re-elected members include:

  • Carl Doeksen, 3M
  • Joe Gemma, Wauseon Machine
  • Mark Lewandowksi, Procter & Gamble
  • Robert Little, ATI Industrial Automation
  • Craig Salvalaggio, Applied Manufacturing Technologies, and
  • Tom Stocker, Yaskawa Motoman.

Gloria Putnam from Gpixel and Nick Sischka from Edmund Optics are the newly elected board members for the A3 Vision & Imaging Technology Strategy Board.

Re-elected members are:

  • John Agapakis, Omron Automation
  • Ghislain Beaupré, Teledyne DALSA
  • David Bruce, Fanuc America
  • David Dechow, Landing AI, and
  • Armin Khatoonabadi, Apera AI.

David Gelfuso from Advanced Motion Controls is the new board member for the A3 Motion Control & Motors Technology Strategy Board.

Re-elected members are:

  • Chris Blake, Maxon
  • Bill Kegley, Rockwell Automation
  • Kevin McNicholas, Integr-i-motion
  • Silas Robertson, Applied Industrial Automation, and
  • Andy Sklierenko, Moons’ Industries.

A3 hosts a number of events, including Automate 2024, which will take place May 6-9 in Chicago.

Speaking of events, Flexxbotics and Zaptic won the Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence division’s Sixth Sense cohort, which culminated with a pitching competition at CodeNode in London. Acerta Analytics was named as the runner-up in the cohort.

Hexagon’s first Sixth Sense cohort was launched in January 2022 to nurture startups with innovations that address critical manufacturing industry challenges. A panel of judges from Hexagon’s corporate leadership team awarded Flexxbotics as a winner for its technology that provides work-cell digitalization for robot-driven manufacturing. Zaptic joined the Flexxbotics team in the winner’s circle for its connected worker platform for manufacturing that digitalizes operations and accelerates operational excellence.

The cohort winners will be given access to Hexagon's resources for global expansion, including potential funding, worldwide office space and the company’s suite of products and services. Additionally, they will be showcased on Hexagon's cloud-based digital reality platform for manufacturing, Nexus, providing them visibility to companies around the world and the opportunity to connect to their systems and data to solve bigger challenges and deliver more value.

Being selected as the Industry 4.0 manufacturing robotics software winner of the program, Flexxbotics co-founder and CEO Tyler Bouchard believes the fleets of robots in the smart factory will run lights-out production, and integrated inspection will be the critical eyes and ears of autonomous manufacturing.

Another noteworthy piece of international news was the acquisition of Michigan-based Automation & Modular Components, a manufacturer of material-handling automation systems with integrated controls, as well as conveyors for integration into assembly systems and production lines, by Italy’s Coesia, through its company FlexLink, which is headquartered in Sweden.

Coesia expects the AMC acquisition to expand its U.S. presence, especially in sectors where a combined assembly or production process needs heavy-weight and small-weight material-handling applications.

FlexLink’s robotic and material-handling expertise will be enhanced and expanded by AMC’s heavy weight conveyance systems, said Alessandro Parimbelli, chief executive officer of Coesia. AMC serves a multitude of industries including, automotive, food packaging, medical, appliance, metalworking, electronics, glass, pharmaceutical, alternative energies and household products.

And, finally, returning to the world of robotics, the stock of operational robots around the globe hit a new record, on the cusp of reaching 4 million units. This demand is driven by a number of technological innovations, according to the International Federation of Robotics’ report on the top five automation trends in 2024.

Trend 1: Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning

The trend of using artificial intelligence in robotics and automation keeps growing. The emergence of generative AI opens up new opportunities. This subset of AI is specialized to create something new from things it’s learned via training and has been popularized by tools such as ChatGPT. Robot manufacturers are developing generative AI-driven interfaces which allow users to program robots more intuitively by using natural language instead of code. Workers will no longer need specialized programming skills to select and adjust the robot´s actions.

Another example is predictive AI, analyzing robot performance data to identify the future state of equipment. Predictive maintenance can save manufacturers machine downtime costs. Machine-learning algorithms can also analyze data from multiple robots performing the same process for optimization. In general, the more data a machine-learning algorithm is given, the better it performs.

Trend 2: Cobots expanding to new applications

Human-robot collaboration continues to be a major trend in robotics. Rapid advances in sensors, vision technologies and smart grippers allow robots to respond in real time to changes in their environments and thus work safely alongside human workers.

Collaborative robot, or cobot, applications offer a new tool for human workers. They can assist with tasks that require heavy lifting, repetitive motions or work in dangerous environments.

The range of collaborative applications offered by robot manufacturers continues to expand. A recent market development is the increase of cobot welding applications, driven by a shortage of skilled welders. This demand shows that automation is not causing a labor shortage, but rather offers a means to solve it. Collaborative robots will therefore complement, not replace, investments in traditional industrial robots which operate at much faster speeds and will therefore remain important for improving productivity in response to tight product margins.

New competitors are also entering the market with a specific focus on collaborative robots. Mobile manipulators, the combination of collaborative robot arms and autonomous mobile robots, offer new use cases that could expand the demand for collaborative robots substantially.

Trend 3: Mobile manipulators

Mobile manipulators, or MoMas, are automating material-handling tasks in industries such as automotive, logistics and aerospace. They combine the mobility of robotic platforms with the dexterity of manipulator arms. Equipped with sensors and cameras, these robots perform inspections and carry out maintenance tasks on machinery and equipment.

Trend 4: Digital twins

Digital-twin technology is increasingly used as a tool to optimize the performance of a physical system by creating a virtual replica. Since robots are more digitally integrated in factories, digital twins can use their real-world operational data to run simulations and predict likely outcomes. Because the twin exists purely as a computer model, it can be stress-tested and modified with no safety implications.

Trend 5: Humanoid robots

Robotics is witnessing significant advancements in humanoids with two arms and two legs. They can integrated into existing warehouse processes and infrastructure designed for humans. 
The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recently published detailed goals for the country’s ambitions to mass-produce humanoids by 2025. The MIIT predicts humanoids are likely to become another disruptive technology. Costs are a key factor, and success will depend on the return on investment competing with established robotics such as mobile manipulators.