The way we use robots in manufacturing is shifting. When we think about machines in factories and laboratories, the image is often one of a single device handling a repetitive task. These robots have had a marked impact on economic growth, raising productivity 16% between 1993 and 2007. However, innovation in the robotics sector is evolving the way humans work alongside machines. Decreases in the size of batteries and components, combined with increases in their efficiency, have allowed for a single robot to take on multiple functions. This kind of reconfigurable design is at the heart of modular robotics.
The ability to redesign modules in response to different purposes is particularly important in industries that build, design, or manufacture a wide array of products. The automotive, electronics, and chemical manufacturing sectors, in particular, have seen accelerated adoption of modular robotics that is driving growth in demand for such devices.
By 2029, the industry as a whole is expected to be worth over $10 billion, over double its current value. Here are some of the current ways companies are shaping that growth, and what it could mean for our modular future.
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Improving Automotive Assembly Lines
The enduring legacy of the assembly line keeps robots at the forefront of automotive manufacturing, both in the mind of the public and on the balance sheets of investors. The automotive industry is already the largest purchaser of industrial robots, which makes it one of the first to adopt new automation technologies. For car manufacturers, modular robotics is an easy fit.
Much of the previous focus on automotive robotics has been in automation. Companies like Toyota have been able to reduce production times down to 17 hours for a single car, thanks in large part to 24/7 automated robots handling the heavy lifting. Yet, these advances in productivity have not led to reduced prices – in fact, car prices have been rising 2% annually in the US, even as consumer wages remained stagnant for decades.
Car sales worldwide have essentially ceased as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Auto manufacturers have now been placed in a double-bind – they’ll have to provide cars at a lower price during a time of recession when demand bottoms out as well.
Modular robotics decreases costs and improves efficiency in assembly lines by increasing automation in a factory. By utilizing a modular chain of robots rather than multiple robotic arms, human overseers can adapt the device to each step of the assembly process. The modular robot moves down the line, reconfiguring itself at every step to handle the next duty in production.
Delays are reduced significantly while future investment in single-purpose robots – which can be more costly given scalability – is replaced by modular robots.
Refining Electronics Manufacturing
Many of the benefits of modular robots in automotive manufacturing carry over to the electronics industry as well. Lean production times and an eye toward reduced costs drive the adoption of new technology in an industry overflowing with innovation.
Modular robots sit at the forefront of this tech-minded industry. One major concern, in addition to cost and efficiency, lies in the need for hundreds of even thousands of components within a single manufacturing environment. A major company like Sony or Toshiba could be responsible for manufacturing TVs, computers, video game consoles, as well as home appliances and experimental technology. The ability to have one robot handling assisting in the manufacture of multiple components was once a dream – with modularity, it’s now a driving factor in electronics innovation.
Modularity isn’t just a facet of production for major companies. Increasingly, SMEs are able to take part in the robotic revolution through products available to them. Companies like ModBot now produce programmable modular robots that are more and more widely available. Electronics firms that already have a strong IT infrastructure and a keen awareness of the power of robotics are starting to move to the vanguard of modular adoption.
What this means for the Electronics industry as a whole remains to be seen. However, the simple ability to have one robot available for multiple purposes, reprogrammable and configured to specific tasks, opens up the growth potential of companies that would otherwise go without automation. Simply put, this is one of a handful of major game changers currently evolving across major industries.
The Modular Future
The innovation in modular robotics has nowhere near reached its peak. While these devices are having an outsized impact on the automotive and electronic sectors, the real change will come when modular robots replace the assembly line entirely. With enough mobility and a wider range of functions, modular robots will be able to move on their own – a shift in automobile manufacturing not seen since the days of Henry Ford.
The potential to upend the very way we produce goods is a direct result of modular automation. When we can adapt our robots to work in the ways we need, rather than for a single purpose, we not only open up new tasks. More creative ideas also necessarily follow suit, bringing forth a future we can’t quite fathom yet, but one that’s already well on its way.