Top 12 Industrial Robot Applications and Uses

22 August 2021
Uses and applications of industrial robotics
Mark Fairchild
Freelance Technical Copywriter
,
Fairchild Copywriting

Industrial robots are now a common sight in numerous factories, warehouses, and sectors worldwide. Discover the many ways in which they are used today.

There are literally hundreds of use cases for robots today. In this article, you can find the most common ones. 

Each section has several subcategories. For example, under the “Machining & Shearing” section, there are subsections for Machine Tending and Loading Robots, Milling Robots, Drilling Robots, etc.

Contents: 

  1. Assembly & Dispensing
  2. Handling & Picking
  3. Machining & Cutting
  4. Welding & Soldering
  5. Casting & Molding
  6. Finishing & Sanding
  7. Painting & Coating
  8. Cleaning & Hygiene
  9. Logistics & Storage
  10. Packing & Palletizing
  11. Inspection & Quality Control
  12. Harvesting
  13. How To Find The Right Robot Solution

Of course, the full list of tasks suitable for robots is much larger. An overview of most of them can be found in this chart:

robotic applications industries
Find the zoomable diagram here (image courtesy of Mikkel Viager, Gain & Co)

Assembly & Dispensing

Assembling small parts into larger units is a crucial part of the manufacturing process. Previously, the combination of human dexterity, vision, and intelligence was the only way such assembly could be done.  Recent advancements in technology have now made it possible for robots to do many of these tasks. Since many assembly processes require adhesives, robots that can dispense bonding agents are a related technology.

Generally, assembly robots are fastened to the floor or an overhead trestle and cannot change their location. Many assembly and adhesive dispensing robots are of the XYZ or Cartesian configuration. More advanced systems will feature six-axis robots, which can move more freely than an XYZ robot.

Woman doing small electronic assembly work in a factory.

Assembly Robots

The automotive industry was one of the first to adopt industrial robots for assembly.  Today, assembly robots are found in applications far beyond automotive.  There is a growing need for high-speed, robotic assembly of small parts.  The accuracy and speed of robotic assembly often mean higher throughput and greater precision than can be achieved using human labor.

Adhesive Dispensing Robots

A dispensing robot applies adhesives and sealants in a variety of applications. These can include fastening pieces together, encapsulating pieces in a sealant, and many more.  Smaller jobs such as glue and epoxy dispensing call for a compact, high-speed robot. Larger applications, often seen in the automotive industry, use a heavier payload robot.

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Assembly & Dispensing include nailing and stapling robots, riveting robots, screwdriving robots, and wiring & cabling robots. 

Handling & Picking

Robots that transport goods within a warehouse, or that pick items out of a tote and place them into a shipping container, are examples of handling and picking robots. With the rise of e-commerce, there is a large and growing demand for robots that can pick and fulfill orders.

Robot putting package on conveyor in factory or warehouse

Material Handling Robots

In warehouses and in factories, one of the most common tasks is transporting goods. Studies have shown that many industrial operatives spend most of their day walking, pushing a cart, or driving industrial vehicles like forklifts. These activities represent a low value-added, and therefore are a good candidate for automation.

Self-driving forklifts have become increasingly popular.  Not only is there a benefit in reducing the labor required to transport goods, but there is also a question of safety. Every year there are hundreds of deaths related to forklifts and thousands of injuries associated with this material handling equipment worldwide.  Self-driving forklifts employ a variety of sensors that enable them to prevent accidents. 

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) include not only larger autonomous vehicles like forklifts, but also smaller carts. Transporting goods from an order picker to a packing station is a common use for an AMR in a warehouse. Conveyor systems using moving belts or rotating cylinders have long been used for transporting goods within a facility. However, conveyor systems have limited flexibility, and it becomes quite expensive and time-consuming to reconfigure many conveyor systems. AMRs are extremely flexible because once they make a map of the facility, they can travel from one destination to the next, autonomously avoiding obstacles along the way.

Liquid Handling Robots

Testing of medical samples, analyzing the chemical composition of liquids, and biological experimentation are three applications that require daily, repeated pipetting.  Pipetting is the process of suctioning a small amount of liquid into a syringe and transferring precise quantities of the liquid into a second receptacle. 

Laboratory and medical technicians can spend hours daily performing pipetting.  It is a repetitive and manual process, in which it is easy to make mistakes.  

Pharmaceutical companies need to dispense precise quantities of liquids into containers to produce eye drops, nasal sprays, and a large variety of liquid medications.

Liquid-handling robots can automate these processes, resulting in higher throughput, greater accuracy, and improved traceability.

Pick and Place Robots

This is perhaps the most common application of robots in manufacturing.  These robots can load and unload processing machines, take parts from a conveyor line and put them into totes or shipping containers, and sort parts from randomness to an ordered format. 

This kind of robot is generally used when the number of variables is small.  For example, the same kind of part comes down an assembly line, and it needs to be placed into a tray, or stacked, or ordered. 

Because the variety of objects to be handled is kept small, the End-of-Arm-Tooling (EoAT) is more straightforward.  In a manufacturing environment, the objects to be picked and placed have a predetermined size, shape, texture, and weight.  Therefore, the kind of gripper the robot needs to use can be optimized for a particular item, and the gripping force of the robot can be more easily determined. 

Order Picking Robots

Warehouses and distribution centers need to pick selected items from shelves or totes and place them into shipping containers to fulfill orders.  Until recently, this required people to find the items, pick them up, and do the placing. 

As an intermediate step toward full automation, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can handle the transporting of the goods to a packing station after they’re picked from shelves by people.  Alternatively, in a scheme called “goods to person”, entire shelving units are picked up from below and carried by the AMRs to a person who is stationary, who then picks the items from the shelves to fulfill the orders.  Amazon has many videos on YouTube showing this type of robot-assisted order-picking process. 

Fully automated order-picking by robots is sometimes referred to as the “Holy Grail” of order picking.  Such robots are very sophisticated and have only recently become available.  This is because of the amazing variety of goods the robot will encounter.  

Designing the kind of gripper that can be used to pick up a baseball cap, a bag of potato chips, a barbell, and a polybag has proven to be quite challenging.  The robot must be able to handle an almost infinite variation in items, in terms of their weight, shape, size, orientation, and texture.  It must be able to change how forcefully something needs to be gripped based on its fragility, weight, and other factors.  It must also change the direction from which it approaches an item to pick it up, depending on how the object is positioned. 

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision, along with new kinds of grippers, are now making fully automated order-picking a reality. 

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Handling & Picking include stacking robots, truck loading & unloading robots, container emptying robots, and unstacking robots.

Machining and Cutting

In a manufacturing or machine tool shop environment, there are many operations that are repetitive and can be automated using robots. 

Robotic milling of a metal part

Machine Tending and Loading Robots

Machine tending robots insert workpieces into machine tools and remove the part after an operation has been completed.  A typical cycle will involve a robot arm grabbing a blank part from a tray, inserting it into the machine, waiting for the operation to be complete, and then removing the finished part and placing it on the same tray, or perhaps a different one. 

There are several reasons to consider automating a machine tool.  Machine tending and loading tend to be highly repetitive and monotonous.  This means sometimes people don’t pay as close attention to what they’re doing as they should, and that contributes to the possibility of worker injuries. In addition, machine tending often involves exposure to poor working conditions, including dust, harmful fumes, and small airborne particles. Using a robot to attend a machine reduces or eliminates the risk of operator injury. In addition, the throughput of the operation can often be increased dramatically, with more repeatability, and higher quality. 

Milling Robots

Cutting material away from a “blank” piece and shaping it into a finished part using a milling machine is one of the most common and essential industrial operations.  Milling machines have become increasingly more automated with the advent of CNC (computer numerical control) in the 1960s. 

Milling Robots take the CNC automation to the next level, allowing for automated tool changing and unattended operation.  Using robotics to perform the milling can improve the precision and flexibility of the operation, reduce the number of defective parts, as well as improve safety for the workers.  Enhancing work conditions can help in employee retention. 

Drilling Robots

Manual drilling is taxing and often dangerous work.  Robotic drilling offers higher precision and greater repeatability than manual drilling.  Throughput is increased and workers are freed up to focus on more rewarding work. 

Milling and drilling are similar in that both involve End of Arm Tooling (EoAT) designed to remove material from a workpiece by rotating and cutting.  Therefore, the two operations are sometimes combined into a single robot.  The robot arm can automatically change tools to switch back and forth between milling and drilling. 

As an illustration of the flexibility of robotic drilling machines, consider the process of “tapping”.  When working with metal, it is often required that spiral threading be added to the interior of the hole, called tapping.  A drilling robot can drill the holes into a workpiece, change tools, and then carry out the tapping operation.

Laser Cutting Robots

For many applications, laser cutting can represent a superior solution over mechanical cutting.  Laser cutting offers a smaller chance of warping of the material, and precision can be improved because the laser beam that does the cutting does not grow dull with use. 

Some materials are difficult or even impossible to cut without using lasers.  Indeed, the first laser cutting machine used in production was to drill holes in diamond dies.    

As lasers have become more powerful, it has become possible for them to cut thicker materials.  However, when it comes to cutting thick steel plates, for example, plasma cutting may still be a more cost-effective solution. 

Plasma Cutting Robots

Plasma cutting evolved from plasma welding, starting in the 1960s.  By the 1980s, it became an effective way to cut sheet metal and steel plates.  Plasma cutting has advantages over more traditional, abrasive “metal on metal” methods.  It does not produce metal chips and creates more accurate cuts with a cleaner edge.  However, early plasma cutting machines were generally confined to cutting sheet material, as the CNC only allowed for movements in two directions. 

Robotic plasma cutting systems can offer six degrees of freedom movement, for very flexible operations, and the possibility of complex cuts. 

Waterjet Cutting Robots

A water jet cutter, as the name implies, uses a powerful, high-pressure jet of water to cut a wide variety of materials.  Because the nozzle can be made as small as 0.002 inches (0.051 mm), a water jet cutter can perform high precision cuts including circles, and sharp internal angles. 

For softer materials like plastic, rubber, and wood, a high-pressure water jet is sufficient.  For harder materials such as metal, stone, or glass, an abrasive material can be added to the water jet.  One of the advantages of water jet cutting is that there is no “heat-affected zone”, an important consideration for some kinds of materials that tend to warp and deform under the influence of heat. 

Robotic arms using waterjet cutting can create intricate and complex objects.  A robot with six degrees of freedom can approach the material from any direction, giving great flexibility to the user. 

Increases in quality, repeatability, and productivity can be achieved with a robot arm controlling the water jet cutter. 

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Machining & Cutting include cutoff robots, dinking robots, lancing robots, and other robots that perform lancing, nibbling, notching, perforating, and trimming.    

Welding & Soldering

Robotic welding in process, with sparks flying

Arc Welding Robots

Arc welding joins metal pieces together by using electricity to heat the metals to their melting point.  When the melted metals cool, they are permanently joined, and the joint is airtight.  Arc welding is flexible, allowing for flat sheets, tubes, and rods to be joined together, and the weld can be located anywhere along the surface of the workpiece.  In addition, arc welding can be used with a variety of metals, including copper, aluminum, and copper alloys.   Arc welding can be performed outdoors, in contrast to MIG welding.

Because the process involves high temperatures, the welder must wear eye protection, special gloves, and other protective gear. 

Many arc welding tasks can be automated using robotics, and robotic arc welding has been growing rapidly.  Today, about 20% of industrial robotic welding applications are in arc welding.  A robot arm performing arc welds means higher repeatability and accuracy.  Using robot arc welding also reduces the risk of operator injury. 

Spot Welding Robots

Spot welding joins relatively thin steel objects together using electrodes that clamp the metals together and pass electricity through the workpieces.  Spot welding is quick and joins two pieces of steel together uniformly and efficiently.  It is often used in assembly-line production because it is cost-effective, energy-efficient, and fast.  Spot welding cannot be used for thicker metal because it will not penetrate to form a solid bond. 

Robotic spot welding is commonly used in the automotive industry and results in greatly increased production speed, as well as higher repeatability and quality than manual welding.  Worker safety is also improved. 

MIG Welding Robots

MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding involves three elements:  heat produced by electricity, an electrode that fills the joining area, and inert gas to temporarily shield the weld from the air.  The electrode is a wire which is fed from a spool.  The operator monitors the amount of the electrode used to join the two metals.  This wire, or filler, is what bonds the two pieces together. 

MIG welding is generally not performed outside, because any wind will interfere with the shielding effect of the inert gas. 

The process of MIG welding can be automated using robotics.  Robotic MIG welding results in higher productivity and lower costs, as well as improved worker safety. 

Laser Welding Robots

Laser welding uses a laser beam to join workpieces together.  Unlike arc welding, which uses a filler to join two pieces of metal together, a laser weld creates a direct metal-to-metal bond.  Laser welding results in a bond that is much cleaner than conventional arc welding.  Arc welding can leave behind slag, which is the excess filler that has hardened around the weld and must be removed by grinding or filing.  As a result, laser welding requires less processing afterward. 

Laser welding is not suitable for thick, heavy pieces, and not all kinds of metal can be joined using laser welding.  However, MIG welding and laser welding can be combined into a laser hybrid system that can overcome this limitation.

Laser welding lends itself well to automation because the width of the laser beam, the depth of penetration into the workpiece, and the path and speed of the beam can all be precisely controlled. 

Soldering Robots

Soldering is a process in which items are joined together by putting a melted filler material (solder) into the joint.  The filler material has a lower melting temperature than the workpieces.  Unlike welding, soldering does not involve melting the pieces to be joined. 

Soldering provides a reasonably permanent bond, but which can be reversed by re-melting the solder.  Examples of the use of soldering include copper pipes in plumbing, as well as electronics, jewelry, and medical instruments. 

Robotic soldering stations range from smaller, benchtop stations for relatively lower production volumes, to large systems that handle very high production rates.  The robotic systems result in higher productivity, precision, and repeatability. 

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Welding & Soldering include Brazing robots, electrical resistance welding robots, and solid-state welding robots, as well as robots that join items by using diffusion, friction, magnetic pulse, electron beam, and infrared welding techniques. Learn more about robotic welding here.

Casting & Molding

A finished part is removed from an injection molding machine.

Casting is the process of forming metallic objects by injecting liquid metal into a die or cavity shaped in the form of the object to be made.  Molding is similar to casting, except the material used is generally plastic, although other types of materials can be used. Molding is typically faster than casting. 

Die Casting Robots

Die Casting is ideal for manufacturing many intricate and different workpiece designs simultaneously.  It does not, however, usually involve the creation of large parts.  Materials that have a high melting point, like steel, are not suitable for die casting.  Typical materials include zinc, copper, magnesium. 

Robotic arms can automate the removal of the piece from the die, placing the piece into a cooling bath, removal of excess material, and placing it onto a conveyor system.  When pieces come out of the die, they are very hot and are usually cooled by placing them into water.  Band saws are often used to slice off unwanted and excess material.  These processes expose human operatives to danger.  Using robots to perform these operations is safer and less fatiguing for the operators.  Throughput is improved and productivity increased.

Injection Molding Robots

Injection molding gives accurate results, even in high production volumes.  Injection molds can be expensive to create. 

Robotic automation of injection molding involves removing the piece from the mold, trimming off excess material, discarding the excess, and placing the finished workpiece into a bin or conveyor system.   As with die casting, the use of robots in the injection molding process improves productivity and increases safety.

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Casting & Molding include robots that are used in centrifugal casting, continuous casting, evaporative-pattern casting, permanent mold casting, sand or plaster mold casting, shell molding, and vacuum molding. 

Finishing and Sanding

Many industrial processes such as drilling, casting, die casting, and welding leave unwanted material behind or create ragged or sharp edges.  This unwanted material must be removed in order to achieve the desired finished product.  This is the job of finishing and sanding. 

Deburring Robots

Deburring removes unwanted material from a workpiece, usually by specially formed, rotating bits.  Typically, the workpiece is stationary in a deburring operation, and the deburring machine moves around the part.  Manual deburring is repetitive, monotonous, and tiring.  Deburring robots do not tire and are faster, more precise, and more repeatable than manual deburring. 

Grinding Robots

Industrial grinding operations remove excess or unwanted material from a part.  In most grinding applications, the grinding machine is stationary, and the part or workpiece is moved, touching the grinding surface at various angles and with appropriate pressure to bring about the desired results.

Robot arms perform grinding operations repeatably, accurately, and tirelessly. 

Polishing Robots

Polishing operations create smooth or shiny surfaces.  Sometimes the polishing process uses a soft cloth or polishing disc, for example polishing a smooth metal or plastic piece.  In other cases, materials such as glass and stone are polished using an abrasive material that might start with a coarse grain, and progress to finer ones.  

Robotic polishing can precisely measure the force applied, and repeat motions with great accuracy, giving consistent and high-quality results.

Painting & Coating

Industrial painting and coating are the processes of applying paint or other coatings to a workpiece.  In manufacturing, the part to be painted or coated is well-defined in terms of shape and size, so the painting and coating operations are highly repetitive. 

As a result, painting and coating operations are well-suited for robotic automation.  The results are consistent, with high quality, and the machines can work continuously with no breaks, and no downtime except for periodic maintenance.  By using robotics, workers do not have to be exposed to harmful fumes or overspray, and safety is improved. 

Painting Robots

New entries in the field of painting robotics include robots that can be used in construction or home renovation projects.  Some are battery-powered and designed to work in new construction for painting walls, while others rely on an external power source and are supplied with paint through a hose.  Robotic painting is as much as 30 times faster than manual painting, with more consistent results. 

Construction painting robots can be used to reduce costs in painting higher buildings by eliminating the need for scaffolding.  These robots use suction to climb the wall of the structure and can either spray or use a brush or roller. 

Spray Painting Robots

Industrial painting robots have been used for decades in automotive manufacturing.  These early robotic painters were hydraulic, which made them heavy and expensive.  Modern painting robots are lighter and lower cost, and therefore accessible even for relatively small organizations.  Industrial painting robots can maintain a precise distance between the spray-head and the workpiece, as well as the speed with which the spray nozzle travels, both of which are critical to avoid runs and drips.  Accurate regulation of pressure and flow is important to maintain consistent results.  All of which is done by industrial painting robots, giving a high-quality result.

Coating Robots

A wide variety of coatings are used in industrial processes, ranging from protective to decorative.  Some coatings impart special properties, such as electrical resistance, a non-slip surface, or conversely a non-stick surface. 

Generally, these coating processes can be automated with robotics because the robotic movement can be precisely controlled.  Robots offer consistency, accuracy, and speed advantages over manual processes. 

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Finishing & Sanding include robots that are used with abrasive belts, abrasive blasting, magnetic field-assisted finishing, sandblasting, burnishing, lapping, sharpening, vibratory finishing, electroplating, and spindle finishing. 

Cleaning & Hygiene

A robotic floor cleaner.

Maintaining clean industrial facilities is important for product quality, as well as for the safety and hygiene of the people who work there.  The process of cleaning is often repetitive and not very interesting.  Consequently, robots are being increasingly used for cleaning applications. 

Cleaning Robots

Industrial floor cleaning robots can autonomously travel through a facility and clean the floors.  They have an internal map of the space they need to travel and clean, and sensors that enable them to avoid people, forklifts, furniture, and other obstacles. 

Some cleaning robots specialize in a wet cleaning process, including applying wax, and some use brushes to gather up debris. 

Disinfection Robots

Autonomous mobile robots designed to disinfect surfaces are commercially available.  They can safely travel hallways and are smart enough to avoid collisions with people or other moving objects.  Some robots use physical contact with surfaces using a robotic arm and carry cleaning fluid with them.  Other cleaning robots expose surfaces to ultra-violet (UV) radiation and thereby disinfect them. 

Industrial Robot Vacuums

Removing dust and debris from industrial facilities can be done automatically using industrial robot vacuums.  Some models offer an automatic discharge area, in which the robot empties the dirt it has collected into a receptacle or chute.  Reducing labor costs, and having the cleaning done thoroughly, consistently, and reliably, are a few of the advantages to using industrial robot vacuums. 

Logistics & Storage

Pizza delivery robot.

Warehouse Robots

Robots that operate in a warehouse or distribution center can be used to automate a wide variety of tasks, including order picking, packing, sorting, labeling, and transporting.  As of 2021, it is estimated that more than 80% of warehouses do not use automation or robotics.  This is expected to change rather quickly.  Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are among the fastest-growing categories of robots for the transportation of goods within the warehouse or distribution center. 

Delivery Robots

Delivery robots are commercially available in a variety of shapes and sizes, and for different functions.  Some delivery robots are designed to deliver food in a city environment and look like carts with wheels.  Other delivery robots look like humans because they walk on two legs and have arms, and the head is replaced with a dome full of sensors.  There are unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) delivery robots that can fly packages to the customer and drop them off.  And there are four-legged delivery robots that look a little bit like dogs.  Self-driving vehicles are in limited use in certain areas that are deployed as delivery robots.  In all cases, the advantages to delivery robots are many, including speed of delivery, lower labor costs, and reliability. 

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Logistics & Storage include robots used in order picking storage, pallet storage, cart transport, pallet transport, and single-unit transport.    

Packing & Palletizing

Packing and palletizing are two operations common to manufacturing, warehouses, and distribution centers.  As the trend toward smaller packages continues, the repetitive nature of the packaging and palletizing operations increases.  This can negatively impact the health and safety of workers.  Implementing robotics for these tasks increases productivity and helps to protect operatives from work-related injuries. 

Palletizing robot

Packaging Robots

Packing food orders is an area of rapid growth, and robots are increasingly capable of gently handling even produce and perishable items. 

Packaging robots can create multiple sizes of boxes automatically according to need. 

As an example of one application, packaging robots can automatically place large wire spools into boxes, with a bottom plastic shipping cap inserted first, and a top cap installed last, and then the box can be sealed and then labeled for shipment. 

These are just a few examples of the many possibilities of packaging robots. 

Palletizing Robots

Palletizing robots can stack boxes and containers onto a pallet in an optimized way.  If there are a variety of different items in the boxes, artificial intelligence can be used so that the heavier containers are placed on the bottom.  The boxes can be oriented in such a way as to maximize the number of boxes that will fit onto the pallet. 

Shrinkwrapping the entire pallet with plastic to stabilize it for transportation can also be automated with palletizing robots. 

Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Packing & Palletizing include robots that are used in case erecting, depalletizing, labeling, anti-corrosive packaging, and Pharma packaging.      

Inspection & Quality Control

Some quality control issues are life-and-death, because a failed part, or an incorrectly installed part, can cause a life-threatening situation.  Human inspection is often only 80% accurate.  Robotic inspection can be 100% accurate.

Factory inspection using robot guided by worker's hand

Vision Robots

When combined with a six-axis robotic arm in a factory environment, a camera can be positioned to see parts from any desired angle.  The existence of cracks, the measurement of dimensions, and the uniformity of coating are only a few of the properties that can be inspected using vision robots. 

There are inspection robots that can travel down a pipeline for the oil and gas industry, and underwater robots for inspecting oil rigs and salvage operations.  There are aerial drones for inspecting rooftops and other high places. 

Some inspection robots do not use vision.  These robots might use a special End of Arm Tooling (EoAT) to measure dimensions or electrical resistance, to name but a few of the many possibilities.

Harvesting

Timely harvesting of fruits and vegetables is critical to ensure a high-quality product reaches the customer and to reduce spoilage and waste.  Harvesting of grains and other crops is also time-sensitive and labor-intensive. 

Robot arm picking grapes.

Harvesting Robots

Harvesting robots are equipped with special soft grippers that enable them to handle fragile crops without damage.  Special vision systems are used to determine if a particular piece is ripe or not.  Harvesting robots can relieve people from back-breaking, often hot, and uncomfortable labor.  The robots increase the efficiency of the process and reduce labor costs. 

How To Find The Right Robot Solution

The easiest and most effective way is to find a robotics system integrator who can do the work for you. 

On HowToRobot.com, you can ask several suppliers how they can help you. Simply submit a Request for Information (RFI) via our platform and you will get answers from various suppliers. They will send you information about their solutions and price ranges.