The installation and programming of robots is often seen as being a complex process for skilled robot engineers and sometimes it is. But in actual fact many robotic applications are straightforward, and depending on the type of robot and the programming interface, can be very fast to get working even for the uninitiated.
Robots flexibility makes them to some degree complex; the skills of electrician, computer programmer, network engineer, mechanical engineer, designer, choreographer and pilot are all needed to install a traditional industrial robot. Add to this the same robot engineer will probably need to know how to weld, have a great knowledge of various machine tools and processes and you start to understand why they often charge a huge amount.
Things are moving on though, we expect to be able to program the complex computers in our pockets with swipe, gesture and touch. We expect to be able to plug and play and for technologies to integrate seamlessly with each other in an intuitive way. The challenge of making robots user friendly has been paramount since they were first introduced in the 1960s and has become more pressing as customers expect more. Despite this many programming robot languages remain low-level and machine focused if very powerful for the experienced programmer. Even the latest robot controllers from the biggest manufacturers still run these languages behind a cosmetic user interface. It should be said that part of the reason for this is a technical one, many operating systems (notably windows) do not normally allow real time processing that is required for safe robotics.
Also the nature of the existing robot industry dictates the use of low level languages; their business model is based around supplying the automotive industry, as a result they cannot charge much for their basic hardware but can charge a premium for service, spare parts and programming. However this has come at a significant cost to the smaller company looking to automate using robots. Making installations very expensive and sometimes costly to maintain.
In the last 10 years new entrants to the robot market have started changing things. Universal Robots intuitive interface has made a great impact in the industry with many other companies following into the collaborative robot or “cobot” market. Cobots are designed to be easy for anyone to install program and reprogram. They are also designed to be intrinsically safer, allowing them to work alongside humans. This is achieved by monitoring feedback from the motors, not just position but the power being used.
So what’s next for the industry? Well there are some other factors to consider. There are too few good robot engineers already and the demand for robotics is increasingly rapidly. The cost of robotic hardware is still dropping rapidly and processing power is obviously getting much cheaper too. So the change will happen here. Robots must become even easier to install for new customers. I’m sure the existing types of integrators and programmers will still have a very substantial role in many applications and they will still be in massive demand. But many robots will have to be installed without them.
So we will have an increasing number of a new type of robot user. Well actually there is already a huge number of them, people that simply work with robots. As programming and integration becomes more intuitive, cost barriers to entry come down and industries face the fact that automation is essential, there will be many more robot users that feel confident to program and install. They generally know their own production environment better than anyone else so it is often easier for them to implement a robotic installation. In short the robot users of tomorrow will be you, me, everyone and anyone that wants to automate something.