Although careers in robotics sound exciting and challenging, how realistic is it to assume substantial opportunity exists? Richard A. Wysk, associate professor of industrial engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, and a member of the Accreditation Bureau for Engineering and Technology, has misgivings. "In 1985," he says, "there were more people graduating from programs in robotic technology than there were robots manufactured in the United States." Yet the Delphi study forecasts that domestic (U.S.) sales of robots will reach 10,000 units by 1990, and 20,000 units annually by the end of the century.
What Is A Robot?
"A robot is nothing more than a mechanical and electronic system," says Wysk. The Robotic Industries Association expands on that idea with its definition, now recognized by most nations: an industrial robot is a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.
Surprisingly enough, the Japanese definition of robots is not identical; in fact, it's broader, since the Japanese include manual manipulators and fixed sequence devices as classifications within their overall definition. Consequently, Japanese and American statistics on robot production and use cannot be compared exactly. The Robotic Industries Association estimates that some 13,000 industrial robots are installed in the United States, and estimates that Japan has about 50,000 industrial robots installed.
Because robots can be programmed to do a variety of tasks, most of them can switch tasks with a minimum of start-up and debugging costs. About 35 percent of United States robots are used in the auto industry. Other major industries that use robots include home appliances, aerospace, and electronics. In the near future, the Association predicts, robots will be used increasingly in industries such as textiles, food processing, pharmaceuticals, furniture, construction, and health care.
How Robots Are Used
Robots are used for repetitive "pick and place" jobs, says Wysk, and for jobs where environmental conditions are unpleasant or hazardous. "In the heat-treating of steel," he explains, "you need to heat it to a critical temperature of 1300 degrees F. Steel items are placed in a rotisserie. The operator must put a part in the rotisserie for 10 or 15 seconds, and then remove it. Only about 30 percent of the time is spent in actually moving the part; the rest is spent standing in front of an open furnace. The heat is tremendously tiring and taxing, and the job is exceptionally repetitive."
*"In the aerospace industries, robots are used for routing and drilling," says Joseph Gaynor, manager of marketing services for Cincinnati Milacron's Industrial Robot Division. "In food handling, robots often put packages in cartons, or move cartons from one conveyor to another.
"In paper-handling and printing, robots often handle printed stock, moving it from the output of the printing press onto a skid, or vice versa. And in machine tool industries, robots load machines and handle parts, often transferring them between successive machines."
Michigan's Delphi Study says that robots save money by replacing direct labor in machine tending, material transfer, spot welding, arc welding, spray painting/coating, processing (routing, drilling and grinding), electronics assembly, other assembly, and inspection... generally because robots are more precise. Chris Hudson, vice president of Orlando, Florida's Automation Intelligence, Inc., says manufacturers in pharmaceuticals are using machine vision for inspection of a pharmaceutical packaging line. On certain pharmaceutical products, the FDA requires product count to have a margin of error within 50 parts per million, (.005 percent). The human process is significantly less reliable. To solve the problem, the manufacturer uses Opti-vision to count the pharmaceutical vials.
Robots of the future may be even more advanced. Currently, the Automated Manufacturing Research Facility, part of the National Bureau of Standards, is studying robots that do not need to be "taught" to recognize a new part. They know what the part should look like from its description in the computer's database.
Currently only 5 percent of robots sold in the United States are equipped with some form of machine vision, according to the 1985 Delphi Study. The panel of experts predicts, however, that by 1995, machine vision will represent the most widely applied form of sensor, with nearly 27 percent of all robots sold being equipped with it.