Mike Buetow

Ever heard of Pepper? Referred to in marketing promos as an “emotional android” and resembling something akin to a hard white plastic version of E.T., it will make eye contact, ask questions, and even move its arms while it speaks. When released in Japan last June, the initial 1,000 unit lot of the $1,600 robot sold out in less than a minute.

The hue and cry has reached the point where market watchers are projecting consumers will be awash in automated “friends” in the very near-term. Juniper Research’s annual predictions assert “an array” of consumer robotics models should reach the market this coming year. Hyperventilating analysts notwithstanding, as a conversationalist, Pepper isn’t much more than a conversation piece. At the industrial level, however, anticipation is growing over the potential for further automating the workplace. Jabil and Benchmark have experimented with various models (see our cover story this month), and no less than Foxconn CEO Terry Gou says he expects the ODM’s assembly line to be at least 30% run by robots within five years.

It wasn't a stretch, then, that, those who visited Productronica last month were greeted by an 8' version of a Transformer-like creature that stomped around the foyer like a Star Wars storm trooper, eyes lighting up in cobalt blue as it spoke in mechanical tones, all while a Lionel Richie ballad anachronistically played in the background.

Inside the nearly two million sq. ft. convention center in eastern Munich, any number of robots were performing real-world tasks at the annual electronics manufacturing trade show.  Several vendors sported industrial robots, some of which were simply flying during basic final assembly operations.

At the show, ’bots were most often implemented in handling functions, but the possibilities are beginning to stray from basic loading/unloading tasks (see CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY'S new YouTube channel for photos and video):

  • Hitachi’s Nextage robot uses a stereo camera attached to the head to detect and initiate responses to changes in the work environment and handle simple installations.
  • Landrex had a new robotic test cell, a three-way collaboration with Omni and Precise Robotics. The demonstration involved a robot picking up boards and putting them in a fixture, then returning them to their rack. The grippers and media presented could be customized, says Landrex president Jim Gibson.
  • Likewise, Teradyne had a robot placing boards on a tester.
  • Ucamco showed a glassed-in cell in which a robot could move product around to load and unload its Ledia direct imager.
  • Pola e Massa had a single-armed robotic PCB loader/unloader.
  • ASYS has developed a non-android robot capable of loading and unloading full magazines from the end to the beginning of a production line. The device’s motions are teachable using a joystick.

What’s interesting is the variety of companies researching and implementing robots. It’s not just the biggest names attempting to bring a new level of automation to the factory floor. And in some cases, such as a joint project supported by Festo, Elrest, Codesys and ASYS, government funding is supporting the investment.

To be sure, no line operators need be worried about The Terminator showing up at their workplace, taking their jobs, and, for good measure, pumping them full of lead anytime soon. The technology simply isn’t mature enough, and won’t be for years. Gripper technology remains one of the major roadblocks to overcome.
Haptic technology is advancing, but not nearly as fast as the rosy projections would suggest.

Nor is the speed there yet. While some of the devices showed remarkable agility – the arms on one final assembly robot whizzed by so fast, I kept wondering when they would fall off – the need for programming and changeovers would overcome most of the time-savings benefit. ASYS’s creation was perhaps the most sophisticated application, and in that case it took about 90 seconds to move up and down a line that wasn’t much more than 15' long. Even the slowest of operators could perform that job in a fraction of the time.

What those demonstrating the budding technology were really after, then, was proof of concept. As ASYS Americas president Markus Wilkens noted, “This is just the beginning.”

Yes, robots were the rage this year at Productronica. But while the humanoid versions aren’t ready for prime time, these examples of progress offer a hint of what the future will hold – whenever that future comes.

P.S. Our very best wishes for a successful 2016!

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