| Alex Webb |
MUNICH (WP-BLOOM) — Robots long ago earned a place in factories, where their pneumatic pumps and steel welding arms help manufacture everything from cars to planes.
Now, they’re learning to behave around people, bringing them one step closer to the Jetsons-esque dream of automated servants that might one day serve you coffee or iron your shirts.
While today’s robots are more agile than ever, they typically require a safety cage to keep them from harming the humans working around them. The world’s biggest robot makers — Switzerland’s ABB, Japan’s Fanuc and Germany’s Kuka — are rolling out new machines with a new generation of sensors that dramatically cut the risk of injury and help them better interact with workers.
The latest robots in the US$29 billion-a-year market are targeting the electronics industry, where factory automation lags behind businesses such as carmaking due to the intricate assembly process.
The same sensors which ensure that a machine doesn’t crush a circuit board or co-worker bring the prospect of robots serving customers even closer, according to Kuka Chief Executive Officer Till Reuter.
“We will have a time where there are far more robots at home — not just washing and cleaning robots, but other functionalities,” the executive said.
The key is sensors that improve a robot’s awareness of its surroundings. Take YuMi, the torso-sized, dual-armed robot which Zurich-based ABB will start selling in April. Its built-in camera and pressure sensors allow it to mimic human movements to assemble small components for a watch or mobile phone, then physically hand them to a person alongside on the production line.
ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer predicts robots will even soon be able to learn from humans.
“There’s a fantastic opportunity,” the chief of ABB, which also makes power grids, said on February 5, when the company said demand for its robots contributed to a 10 per cent increase in orders last year. “A robot looks at you, sees what you’re doing and he copies you. Robots also become more intelligent in terms of understanding what he has in his hands and selecting what to do.”
Kuka promotes its LBR iiwa robot, introduced last year, as an “intelligent, industrial work assistant” whose built-in protection mechanisms and safe torque sensors in every axis allow it to safely work next to humans on the factory floor.
Kuka shares rose to the highest level in 19 years recently as rising demand helped the company to exceed its own forecast for sales and profitability. Revenue surged 18 percent to 2.1 billion euros while earnings before interest and taxes gained 18 per cent to 142 million euros.
The electronics industry, currently dependent on as many as 10 million factory workers in Asia alone, could need 500,000 robots by 2020, Reuter estimates. There are currently about 1.3 million industrial robots in operation globally, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
The growth of the industry has attracted new players, ranging from software giant Google to online retailer Amazon.com and Chinese Web firm Alibaba Group.
Robots present a “great opportunity” in the next 20 to 30 years, Alibaba chief Jack Ma said February 2 in Hong Kong as he pledged “significant” investment in artificial intelligence.