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Six Transformative Technologies Impacting Manufacturing – Part 3

Should an industrial company go with a best-of-breed type approach or single vendor approach when they consider robotics solutions?

Find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

No. 5 - Robotics

Q: Should an industrial company go with a best-of-breed type approach or single vendor approach when they consider robotics solutions?

A: While best-of-breed is always preferred, the choice depends on the internal IT capabilities of the enterprise user, the complexity of the automation needs and requirements, and the trade-off between cost (lower for single vendor approach) and performance (best-of-breed guarantees best performance). Some companies have launched a families of industrial robot controllers that will allow easy integration with an existing programmable logic controller (PLC), since no separate programming language is required for the robot. Growing pains still present challenges to incorporating solutions from different robotics vendors.

Q: When is the right time to adopt a collaborative robot (aka “cobot”)?

A: For the manufacturer yet to adopt robotics automation, it may be that a cobot is an ideal first step toward automated processes, given the slightly lower price point. Once multiple cobots are required, the cost will quickly exceed the cost of a fleet of industrial robots. The best way is to access the nature of the process (fixed or changeable) and the scalability requirement in the long term.

Q: What is the right business model implementers should consider for automating their manufacturing processes?

A: Robotization and automation of the manufacturing chain is complex and requires significant capital investment. This is particularly the case for small manufacturers and those burdened with legacy equipment. With the multitude of solutions on offer and the fragmented technology landscape, manufacturers are reluctant to take the risk in automating their facilities, uncertain of their potential return on investment and/or the cost to run and maintain the new equipment. Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) is emerging as a new business model likely to lower the barrier to adoption for manufacturers.

Q: How do I implement Robotics-as-a-Service to shift from CAPEX to OPEX?

A: If you are a small-to-medium business in the manufacturing sector, there is a pretty good chance you have missed out on many of the benefits of automation over the years. The incorporation of smaller collaborative robotic arms is beneficial, but the price remains high. The alternative business model of RaaS provides an opportunity to shift expenses from large upfront capital investment to more long-term operational expenses. This is likely to benefit smaller companies and lower the barriers to adoption for automation.

Q: What new opportunities will smaller collaborative robotics provide?

A: Today, manufacturers are increasingly demanding robotics technologies that support agile manufacturing, production processes that make no assumptions as to volume levels, or even types of products being manufactured. Collaborative robots can provide this flexibility, through high modularity and the ability to perform multiple tasks with new end-effectors, but also through location and mobile flexibility (being able to move and be moved quickly around the workspace).

Q: How will major innovations in gripper and end-effector technology advancements impact me?

A: From handling soft materials to manipulating objects autonomously, an ever-growing number of players are developing innovative end-effector solutions that expand the utility of robots in the workspace.

No. 6 - Wireless Connectivity

Q: Why should I be looking beyond Ethernet to wireless connectivity in my installations?

A: Wired technologies are proven and robust. Key vendors, engineers, and implementers have long-term experience and training with wired solutions. However, they are more labor-intensive and costly, difficult to retrofit or upgrade, less flexible, less scalable, cannot easily integrate with new systems or devices, and are more challenging to install in hazardous environments. In contrast, wireless solutions often come at a lower cost, are easier to install and maintain, provide greater flexibility, are more scalable, and can cover greater coverage areas through mesh networking or longer-range technologies. Wireless technologies can help drive a range of new innovations in condition monitoring, predictive maintenance, people and asset tracking, health and safety, and security applications, among others.

Q: How do I triage the wireless connectivity technologies available for me to employ?

A: There is no single wireless connectivity technology that can address the varied requirements of a smart factory on its own. Industrial facilities will require effective co-existence and co-operation between multiple and different technologies dependent on specific application use cases and requirements. However, organizations must better understand the strengths and limitations of each wireless solution, the scalability and security features of different implementations, how emerging LP-WAN technologies compare to short-range wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 802.15.4, and which wireless solutions can replace or extend wired coverage in harsher industrial environments.

Q: What should I be concerned about when looking at wireless connectivity solutions in my operations?

A: Despite the inherent advantages of wireless sensor networks in industrial environments, there are also numerous hurdles that need to be overcome to gain wider traction. Wireless technologies are relatively new to industrial environments, and there is still a lack of confidence and trust in these solutions, thereby hindering growth opportunities. Poor past performance, battery life challenges, technology fragmentation, interoperability issues, lack of awareness and education, security concerns, and a risk-averse environment all remain key obstacles. In addition, according to ABI Research’s “Industry Survey on Transformative Technology Adoption and Attitudes” report, aligning innovative technologies with the existing framework represents the biggest barrier to adoption in manufacturing environments. And, a lack of technical knowledge was the biggest obstacle to integration between IS/IT and operations. There is a clear need for better education on wireless solutions and best implementation practices across different industrial environments. Existing fragmentation, confusion, and hesitancy around wireless technologies are preventing companies and industrial environments from reaching their full potential. 

Stuart Carlaw is Chief Research Officer at ABI Research.

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