Get the most comprehensive guide to industrial robots. Discover a detailed overview of the key types of robots in use, their applications, and benefits.
Industrial robots have been around for almost 70 years. Still, few understand the types of robots, what they can do, and the benefits of this technology. Manufacturers in every industry are beginning to reap the rewards of automation.
This and later articles will provide insights on these topics to help you understand the basics of industrial robots. Additionally, you will see where you can find a return on investment based on your type of industry.
Content of this guide
- What exactly are industrial robots?
- Main benefits of industrial robots
- Types of industrial robots
- Most common applications of industrial robots
- Industries that use industrial robots the most
- Steps to industrial robot implementation
- How to find the best robotic supplier for your needs
What exactly are industrial robots?
Industrial robots are automated and programmable machines with multiple axes of motion that can move to perform a task. An axis of motion is a joint in the robot’s body where a segment can move. For example, a 3-axis robot might be able to swivel at its base, move its arm up and down, and rotate its gripper at the end of its arm.
Industrial robots are often found in manufacturing processes performing automated tasks. These tasks include part assembly, welding, and palletizing applications. If you’ve ever seen a video of a car assembly, you’ve likely seen several examples of an industrial robot in action. One robot moves the car frame from one station to the next. Another mounts the car doors to the body. A third might paint a sleek black shine back and forth over the vehicle’s body before its ready to ship to the dealer.
Now you understand what an industrial robot is, but why should you consider using one?
Robots have been automating tasks for decades and all signs point towards their numbers increasing. You can see this technology spreading to industries in non-manufacturing applications. Examples include healthcare, home appliances, and logistics operations. For the appropriate application, there can be several benefits to introducing an industrial robot.
Robots are often used when there is a need for increased throughput or efficiency where manual operation is either slow or expensive. An example of this could be a pick and place application. Imagine you are the plant manager of a candy bar factory. As finished products move down the line on a conveyor belt an operator picks them from the line. Then he or she places them in cardboard boxes where they get shipped out to retailers. If automated, this process could occur at a much higher rate of speed than the manual process. Because of this increase in throughput, the factory produces more cases of candy bars every day.
Industrial robots are precise. This means they can perform the same task repeatedly at a small range of error compared to people. The major benefit is that manufactured parts can have consistent and reliable quality. That means you see fewer rejected parts because they didn’t pass quality control checks.
Robotic welding applications are a great example of this precision. 100 brackets welded by a human may have some errors and deviations depending on the skill and experience level of the welder. A percentage of these welded parts are rejected for one reason or another—crooked welds, inconsistent thickness, or voids. 100 parts welded by a robot will be identical to the naked eye.
The reason for this is that the robot is following a set of programmed instructions. These instructions tell it the location, speed, and path to take. The robotic welder doesn’t need a learning curve, won’t make mistakes, or experience fatigue. This means consistent and repeatable quality.
The ability to take a complicated manual process and turn it into an autonomous one can lead to a large return on investment for your business. The level of autonomy will differ depending on the application, but some facilities today can run “light’s out”. This means a facility can continue to run with little to no human supervision from start to finish.
Picture a machine shop that produces aluminum parts for the aerospace industry. A warehouse robot picks raw parts from the shelves and loads them onto a mobile robot (think Wall-E without the arms). It then transports those parts to a CNC machine station. Another robot picks that part from the mobile robot loads them into the machine, and starts the process. Then the robot removes the part from the machine and places it into a box. Those boxes are then transported to the shipping area ready to go out the door first thing in the morning.
Autonomy allows manufacturers to maximize the time allotted to them for peak efficiency. This can lead to cost savings or an increase in revenue. You can then reinvest these savings back into your business or lower prices for a competitive advantage. You might also reallocate human capital to more complex or impactful roles.
It is no secret that manufacturing facilities are dangerous. A common reason for integrating a robot into a process is to remove a human operator from a situation where there is a high risk of injury. From a bottom-line perspective, workplace injuries carry heavy fines. Facilities with a poor safety record will have a difficult time holding onto skilled laborers.
In 2019, the total cost to businesses due to workplace injuries was $171 billion USD and $42,000 USD per medically consulted injury. The cost of workplace death to employers was $1,220,000 USD. These costs include the value of time lost due to reduced workforce numbers because of the injury and medical care. These cost numbers do not include fines levied by OSHA (a workplace safety regulation agency based in the United States) which can reach up to six figures for repeat offenders.
An example of a robot taking over a dangerous application might be a thermal spray process where a hot flame processes parts. The thermal spray process is one that includes high-heat and dangerous chemicals. It is not hard to see the potential for workplace injury here. Thermal spray applications are very repeatable (i.e., the same parts are processed repeatedly). They are also dangerous due to the flame and chemicals. This is a good candidate for robotic automation. Using a robot for this task makes the likelihood of workplace injury much lower.
Industrial robots are consistent in their precision which you learned about earlier. Robots are also consistent workers. They can run shift after shift without the need for breaks. Robots don't get tired or injured. Industrial robots are more predictable than the average operator. Robots don’t get sick, take a vacation, and are more durable than people.
Floor Space Utilization
Utilizing available floor space is a major factor in maximizing efficiency and throughput. Automated facilities can take full advantage of the space available to them. This is because robots are not subject to the same ergonomic and equipment restrictions that human operators need to perform the same operations.
For example, rows of warehouse racks will need a significant amount of space between them. Forklift operators need space to maneuver their vehicles through the aisles. They must turn and pull pallets from the shelves to load and remove products. Automated warehouse retrieval systems only need enough space for the robot since it will traverse the shelves to pick the parts.
Furthermore, robots can take advantage of the vertical space in large industrial buildings. Some robots can operate over the top of conveyors to perform their tasks. Human operators need space next to the line to perform their tasks and to move in and out of the area.
Stationary robots are those that perform their task while their base doesn't move. These are the most common robot types and are often visualized with the term industrial robot. In fact, the first industrial robots were stationary. This robot type dominates the industry numbers and flexibility.
These robots have the widest range of applications for many reasons. Their flexibility, speed, strength, range of motion, and ability to manipulate objects allow them to perform many tasks. Stationary robots often have end-effectors. These are things like grippers, suction pads, or weld tips. End-effectors allow them to pick things up and move them around, weld, paint, and more.
These robots are unmatched in their speed to strength ratio. Because they move using electric motors they can move at high speed. High ratio gearboxes provide larger models enough strength to move entire cars! Different types of stationary robots have their own pros and cons.
Examples you may have heard include:
These few robot types are the most common in the stationary robot category. There are several other robot types outside of the few mentioned here. More detail on the ones discussed here and other types are discussed here.
Mobile robots move using a combination of sensors and camera systems to perform a task. They are sometimes referred to as AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) or AMRs (autonomous mobile robots). Generally, AMRs are more robust. This is because they have software that allows them to operate with more intelligence than AGVs. In manufacturing, mobile robots are often seen performing transportation or material handling applications. An example of this might be a robot that takes a finished product from the production line to shipping.
The main benefit to this type of robot is that they do these tasks autonomously. This removes the need for human transporters which can be dangerous and inefficient. Modern versions are much more robust in how they can handle unforeseen circumstances. Because they often come with an array of sensors and cameras they can react to unexpected obstacles and people. If a robot senses an obstacle, it can avoid it or wait for a person to pass and still reach their target location.
Automated forklift systems that you can find in warehouses and Mars rovers are examples of mobile robots. Many manufacturers of this type of equipment often have fleet management software. This allows dozens of mobile robots to react in real-time to the changing needs of the facility. Using artificial intelligence, the fleet can send more mobile robots to high-need areas. This maintains high efficiency in the flow of material without human monitoring or intervention.
Flying Robots / Drones
Flying robots or automated drones are robotic machines that move around their environment via flight. This category of technology is most recognizable in logistics and defense applications. Flying robots are now finding their way into industrial applications.
Drones are used in environments like mining, oil, gas, industrial processing, and warehouses. Common applications include:
- Inspection of equipment
- Product inspection
- Infrastructure inspection
- Security applications
- Hazard detection
This is the youngest robot technology discussed here. The diversity of applications continues to grow as the technology develops further.
This category of robots includes any automated machine that operates in marine environments. Like their aerial cousins, underwater robots are often utilized for inspection jobs. They are often deployed in offshore oil and gas or chemical processing applications. They are also used in security and defense operations. Outside of the industry, marine robots perform exploration operations for non-profit and academic purposes.
Manual underwater inspection and repair jobs are expensive and dangerous for human workers. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are primed to disrupt this industry.
Collaborative robots are robots intended to work alongside human operators. You may have heard them called "cobots". This definition doesn’t limit collaborative robots to any individual robot type. They are most often found in the six-axis or articulated arm form. As the name suggests, this robot appears like a complex multi-jointed arm. This is the style most associated with industrial robots. It’s important to remember that not every six-axis robot is collaborative.
Collaborative robots have found their way into the mainstream over the past decade. They now constitute about 5% of all robots in service worldwide. This number is expected to grow year over year at a compound annual growth rate of 23% from 2021-2026.
Major factors include:
- Falling cost in comparison to the non-collaborative models
- High return on investment
- Growing payload capacity
- Growing range of motion
- A greater acceptance for collaborative applications
Collaborative robots have strict design limitations defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This means that regardless of the brand there is a baseline level of collaboration specifications that are being adhered to.
Collaborative robots can perform in many of the same applications as non-collaborative robots. However, you should consider the inherent limitations of collaborative robots.
Such limitations include maximum speed, payload capacity, range of motion, and specific details about your application. Factors like these may make a collaborative robot a less than optimal choice. For the right application, however, collaborative robots can yield a high return on investment with limited capital spend on additional components and setup needed with traditional industrial robots. These elements include additional safety hardware like safety cages and more intensive programming and setup labor.
Ideal applications for industrial robots are generally those that are one of or a combination of the following:
- Mundane and repetitive
- Labor intensive
The diagram here visualizes just how many types of jobs robots can perform.
Below are some examples of robot solutions based on the tasks they are doing:
Assembly & Dispensing Robot
Robots excel in assembly and dispensing applications. Robots are a great fit due to the predictable and repetitive nature of these jobs. These applications often involve working on the same part in predictable circumstances for long periods of time. Usually, these processes are already optimized for maximum efficiency with human labor in mind. Efficiency improvements like parts presented predictably each time make robots a good fit. Generally, the only way to increase productivity from here is to automate the process.
For example, a dispensing application might be a job where an operator needs to apply glue to the frame of a headlight. This task would likely involve the part presented to the operator the same way all day long. Installing a robot to take on this task allows that human labor to be utilized elsewhere on more complex and engaging applications. The robot would likely be faster, more consistent, and lead to a greater return on investment for these kinds of tasks.
Handling & Picking Robots
Handling and picking jobs are often repetitive and labor-intensive. An example of a handling job might be moving finished boxes from a conveyor line to a pallet for shipping. This kind of job is both repetitive and labor-intensive. Additionally, this is the type of task that includes the potential for injury. Moving boxes from a conveyor to a pallet on the floor involves plenty of strain on the human body. These considerations make handling and picking applications prime candidates for automation. Secondary devices like sensors and machine vision cameras allow the robot to operate in a dynamic environment. This means it can adapt to slight changes in part arrangement, orientation, or type.
Inspection & QC Robots
When tasks become repetitive and mundane performance can begin to suffer. Nowhere in the process is this more detrimental to your bottom line than quality control. Mistakes made here aren’t caught again until there is a failure in the field. For this reason, automated inspection and QC are common robotic applications.
For these types of applications, you will often find a robot paired with a vision system. The camera might take photos of the part and process the visual data. It will then relay that information to the robot. From there, the robot can make corrections, pass along the part for further processing, or discard the part as a failed piece.
A camera is not always needed, however. Certain tasks like measuring a die-cast for compliance or testing continuity on a computer board might not need a vision system for the robot to perform its task. Each application is unique, and many variables go into the decision to include secondary devices.
Welding jobs are also often predictable, repetitive, and labor-intensive. Robots in welding applications are very consistent. They can excel in operations where the same parts are being processed repeatedly. Examples of industries that use welding robots are automotive, aerospace, and construction companies. These are places where a few products are processed hundreds or thousands of times a day. When the same car chassis is welded together on the same assembly line every single day, it becomes a very repeatable process. This application is a good example of one where a welding robot can pay dividends.
Painting applications are often automated for similar reasons. Like welding, painting tasks are a good candidate for automation when the process is repetitive and predictable. Robots would likely not be successful in jobs where many different parts are painted in many ways. Neither would they excel when custom painting tasks are often involved. Why? The robot would need to be reprogrammed or reconfigured for every scenario. This often becomes more labor-intensive and costly in the long run vs. keeping the process manual.
It is important to understand whether your process is one that is suitable for robotic automation. Need help getting started? HowToRobot can save you time and resources by getting you in contact with the right people to assist you in your automation projects. You can use our request for solutions here to inquire about your application and begin your automation journey today.
The packing industry has many picking, material handling, case packing, and palletizing operations. All these tasks can be automated and can be automated with a robotic solution depending on the specific details of the application (characteristics of the material, task complexity, level of fine motor skill, etc.).
What are some examples of robots in the packaging industry? Packaging companies use stationary robots for pick and place and case packing applications. Think of a robot placing boxes of tissues in a large cardboard box for distribution. The packaging industry also uses mobile robots to move products from the end of the line to the warehouse.
Food and Beverage
The food and beverage industry often has repetitive tasks with the same products thousands of times per day. Unlike other industries, food and beverage have the added complication of sanitation. Human presence around or even on the product itself introduces the risk of contamination. This is a huge concern for the food and beverage industry which is highly regulated by government standards for quality. Violations can lead to huge fines and loss of production while the issue is rectified. This is a massive concern for an industry that often runs on thin margins and is dependent on high-volume production for profit.
Automating some of the processes in the food and beverage industry removes some of the risks of contamination. These processes include things like dispensing, material handling, and packaging. There are many robots today designed for washdown conditions. This is perfect for the food and beverage industry since they must frequently clean equipment.
The aerospace industry has a long history with robotic automation. Robots perform tasks such as material handling, assembly, drilling, painting, and welding here. This is due to the repetitive nature, high standard for precision, and quality control.
Sometimes robots do these tasks because of safety concerns. Aerospace applications can involve large components. This leads to inherent risk when human operators are performing these jobs. Aerospace companies often have very strict safety standards that their contractors must meet. Automating certain processes is one way contractors can meet these specifications.
Robots in the aerospace industry are sometimes combined with secondary mechanics due to the size of the components. These systems are called robot transfer units (RTUs). You might use a robot with an RTU to move down the full length of the fuselage drilling holes. A robot can do this with a higher level of precision and repeatability than a human technician could. This high level of precision and repeatability is of the utmost importance in an industry that has zero tolerance for any lapse in quality control. For this reason, robots will only continue to grow in numbers and breadth of applications within the aerospace industry.
The metal industry utilizes robotic automation in applications such as welding, material handling, machine tending, and bending. These tasks can be dangerous and repetitive. This makes them a prime candidate for automation. Robotic precision is also a major benefit to this industry. Metal companies often support other industries that require strict specifications on their parts. Such companies include those in the aerospace and automotive industry.
The automotive industry has the longest history with robotics. In fact, the first commercial industrial robot was a material handling and welding robot for General Motors. It was a material handling and welding robot that took die casted parts off an assembly line and welded them to the vehicle bodies. The automotive industry requires precise and fast assembly of heavy components. Tasks like this can be both demanding and dangerous for human operators. Additionally, an automotive plant may only produce a few different models of vehicles. This makes the process repetitive and predictable. It’s no wonder then that this industry has such a long history of using industrial robots to increase quality, safety, and productivity.
Now you have a good understanding of the different robot types and applications. It is important to understand the challenges that lie ahead.
The Robotic Ecosystem
Buying a robot isn’t as simple as placing an order online. It can be a complex task with many considerations. There are manufacturers that make the robots, but many of them sell through distribution. The distributor will be able to provide the robot and replacement parts. Sometimes those distributors can help you integrate the robot, but sometimes not. Occasionally, you will have to find a third-party integrator to install the robot. This is especially the case if you are not able to integrate it yourself.
Robotic technology has advanced significantly in the past decade. Integration, however, is still a huge undertaking and can be a complex process. It can be a costly mistake to assume an application is simple and the implementation of the hardware will be easy.
Now, you may be ready to start your first automation project. But, in order to make it a successful one, make sure to follow those steps:
1 - Use a Proven Process for Your Automation Project
Doing your first automation project needs certain preparation to make it a success. If you get started without a proper plan in place, you will most likely face difficulties, errors, and frustration. Over the years, we have been able to test out a proven automation journey process that leads to numerous successful projects. This process includes steps like:
- Determine possible automation projects by mapping your production
- Measure productivity gains
- Calculate your budget
- Determine ROI
- Research brands, suppliers, and integrators
Of course, this is a simplification for the purposes of this article. This is why we recommend you use our Automation Journey Tool to guide you along the way.
2 - Select the Best Task to Automate First
For companies who are beginning to automate, starting with simpler projects first is recommended. Easier tasks have less risk of misapplying robot technology. But if you are new to automation, how can you determine which tasks are simple?
This is why you first need to map out your production. First, define which stations or tasks you would like to automate. If you don’t know where to start, a service provider can also be able to walk your production line and help you define the best application to start with.
Once you have the selected stations you would like to automate, you have to detail them. Describe how each process is carried out today, how many operators it has, etc. This step is necessary to have a better idea of what will be needed to automate it. It will help not to miss anything in the process.
Once they are detailed, you’ll then be able to compare them based on specific goals e.g. on improving productivity, work environment etc.
To help you out, we have a Potential Finder Tool that helps you to identify potential projects. This tool provides you with an understanding of the impact and risk of automation projects in your facility.
3 - Build a Case for Management and Define the ROI
It’s important to understand your business case for automation early on in the process. Robotic automation equipment requires capital investment. So it’s crucial to understand the costs and benefits of your project. Robots lead to productivity gains in areas we’ve discussed previously, but is it worth the cost for you?
Our Investment Calculator will help you determine what you might stand to gain in automating. Input the specifics of your business and application to find out the impact of robotics on your process.
The full cost of a robot generally includes more than just the robot itself. There are integration costs and often additional hardware required. Additional hardware can include safety equipment, vision systems, sensors, and end effectors. Maintenance costs need to be considered in addition to these other factors.
Once you have assembled a business case and have secured a budget, you will begin to look for suppliers. Finding an integrator can be one of the more difficult tasks when taking on an industrial robot project.
How do you find one that specializes in your application, industry, or brand of robot?
- Search for yourself: Browse our global directory of robot & automation suppliers
- Submit a request for solutions here to get offers from suppliers today. We will match you with relevant suppliers to save you time and effort searching on your own.
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