Robotics and automation will continue to play increasingly more important roles in manufacturing for the foreseeable future. There will continue to be investments in this area for functions such as production, assembly, and parts machining as in the automotive business, or in the high-speed assembly of precision components. However, I do not believe we will see the move to replace all human labor broadly implemented in the near future. Certainly some businesses will see this sooner than others, but for certain types of production, this may never happen.
The latest trends in robotics include the integration of vision into the robotics themselves so they can adapt and self-adjust to their own surroundings. This is especially important in a manufacturing environment where the reduction of costly and time-consuming front-end programming can drive improved return on investments, making the technology more affordable to more end users. Technology advancements and interconnectivity will further add to the implementation of robotics and automation and there will be other technologies like 3D printing that will enable increasing automation. Today, robotics is still best suited to high-volume, repetitive, and dangerous operations, and they represent a major capital expenditure and require significant programming and maintenance.
What will the role of wireless networks be in the factory of the future? Will it become robust and failure-proof enough to replace most of the hardwiring?
As discussed earlier, the primary concern in industrial applications is safety and reliability. While wireless networks are currently in use, industrial customers have been conservative with regard to the implementation of wireless, since it brings other risks to the factory floor (like EMI and security). As a result, hardwiring is still the preferred solution, especially for critical processes today. But the trend toward increasing implementation of wireless will continue with the expansion of industrial standards for Ethernet, Profibus, and others.
Wireless networks clearly save on the cost of installing structured cabling and, provided the bandwidth is available, can scale to meet growing demand and expansion. Also, they are becoming more robust and failure-proof for the industrial applications, just as they have outside of the factory floor. As further proof that this trend is the way of the future, you can look at strategic partnerships like the one being formed by Rockwell Automation and Cisco and intended to address the many challenges and issues surrounding data management, security, and totally integrated processes. With respect to interconnects and the reduction in hardwired connections on the factory floor, the opportunity will be offset by increases in the need for connectors in the RF space, networking, base stations, power, and batteries.
Will the Internet of Things, robotics, and wireless technology eventually lead to "lights-out" factories where no humans work, or just a few people who monitor the process from a distance?
In some respects we are there today. There are factories that are fully automated and processes that are integrated and monitored remotely and where operators/process engineers focus their time on improving these processes even further by being involved in new product development from the very early stages. In these cases manufacturability is a design requirement. In industries like food processing and oil and gas, human crews have been relatively small for a long time and in these cases the people monitor the processes remotely from a command center or control room. There are dark warehouses today that operate without human interface except that people are needed to program and maintain the equipment, receive product to be stocked, and to physically ship the products coming out of the warehouse. While this trend for increased automation, connectivity, intelligent machines, and eventually the fully connected enterprise will continue, with very few exceptions there will always be the need for people in the process. The skill set and job functions may eventually be different but people will still be a critical part of successful industrial companies. The Amazon vision of drones delivering your packages may indeed come true in the near future but history tells us that no matter how significant the technological advances, machines will not totally replace people.
This article reprinted courtesy of Connector Supplier, Vol. 10, Issue 1, January 7, 2014. Subscribe to Connector Supplier here: http://www.bishop-associates.info/subscribe-cs.HTM