Will autonomous robots change metal manufacturing?

  • Articles
  • Jan 29,22
Many new developments are helping in reshaping the metal manufacturing industry. The industry could benefit significantly from autonomous robots that allow faster and less labour-intensive metal processing, says Emily Newton.
Will autonomous robots change metal manufacturing?

New robot technology is having a major impact on manufacturing. Innovations like machine vision have helped make robots more autonomous than ever, allowing them to independently handle tasks that previously required human labor or oversight.

These new developments could help reshape the metal manufacturing industry, allowing the sector to more effectively manage ongoing supply shortages, rising demand and a labor shortage.

New autonomous robots in manufacturing
While robots have long played an important role in manufacturing, Industry 4.0 technology can allow new robots to partially or fully automate certain tasks that previously required human labor. These jobs can range in complexity from machine tending to simple picking and packing to quality assurance operations.

These robots typically rely on several innovations from the AI world, like machine vision — a type of pattern-finding AI algorithm that can allow machines to “see” and analyze their environment. 

Machine vision — along with supporting technology, like GPS and digital map data — helps autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) navigate the floor of industrial facilities with little to no human oversight. These machines are employed by major businesses like Amazon to support picking and packing operations in warehouses, among other tasks.

These autonomous mobile robots are also increasingly popular in the warehousing industry at large, and some experts have estimated that as many as 50,000 warehouses could be using them by 2025.

Because machine vision allows these robots to analyze their environment, they can adapt to a changing warehouse floor layout, avoiding debris and obstacles and keeping a safe distance from workers on the floor.

These robots are seen as a potential solution to growing consumer demand and a labor gap that has threatened the efficiency of warehouses and similar industrial facilities. 

Other robots may use machine vision to inspect parts or identify components on a machine that needs to be tended.

How autonomous robots could change metal manufacturing
Metal manufacturers with large warehouses or storage facilities can use AMRs and similar solutions to provide significant improvements to the efficiency of site storage, order picking and packing, or inventory management. 

An AMR could help manage storage tasks that would otherwise require human labor, freeing up workers for more important work elsewhere on-site.

Robots for specific metal manufacturing tasks
Other, more specialised robots could help streamline existing workflows with new technology. Various critical tasks can and have been automated with robotics. Abrasive blasting is used widely in metal manufacturing and related industries for finishing, cleaning and etching.

While automation of the process has been possible for decades, existing technology helps modern solutions better meet the needs of metal manufacturers. 

Non-autonomous robots that follow preprogrammed blasting algorithms may have difficulty reaching nooks and crannies in certain objects. These robots would also likely require human oversight to successfully complete the blasting.

Newer, more autonomous blasting robots take advantage of technology like machine vision to intelligently identify parts of an object that still need to be smoothed or cleaned. These robots can perform blasting tasks and double-check their work — potentially freeing up site employees who would have been responsible for quality-checking the robot’s work. 

Several robot manufacturers have already commercialized the technology. One existing blasting platform has even been used by clients like the Australian Royal Navy, which employed blasting robots as part of a recent digital shipbuilding initiative.

Leveraging solutions from other manufacturing sectors
The metal manufacturing industry could benefit significantly from other autonomous solutions that allow faster and less labour-intensive metal processing.

For example, other new robots can use different methods of finishing and paint-stripping — like a 67-ton robot from Dutch robot manufacturer Xyrec that uses lasers to strip paint from aircraft. The robot works twice as fast as human cleaners and is leased out to clients as part of its “robots-as-a-service” business model. The system is fully autonomous and can be controlled by a single operator stationed behind a glass barrier, protecting them from the robot’s powerful laser and the toxic gases produced by the paint-stripped process.

Similar technology at a smaller scale could be essential in recycling painted metal parts or removing by-products of manufacturing techniques during final quality assurance passes. Because robot manufacturers increasingly allow businesses to rent or lease their products, metal manufacturers could take advantage of these robots without committing capital to a purchase.

Collaborative robotics in metal manufacturing
The rise of collaborative robots (cobots) may also provide significant value to metal manufacturers.

Cobots are designed to work near human staff. Features like force limiters, padding, lightweight design and machine vision make them less dangerous to work around, reducing the space they need to function safely.

These robots are used to support workers, rather than replace them. Existing technology enables them to manage or assist with tasks like machine tending and quality assurance inspections. 

Like many modern robots, most cobots are built to be slotted in and out of workflows as necessary. They could be used for various tasks in metal manufacturing — like welding — and moved from job to job as needed.

Autonomous robot and other Industry 4.0 technology in metal manufacturing
Industry 4.0 technology is helping businesses manage market uncertainties and large labor shortages. Autonomous robots provide value by partially or fully automating tasks that typically require human labor — like picking and packing or quality control. 

Metal manufacturers and fabrication companies can improve productivity without hiring additional staff by using the right robot. AMRs and cobots may be particularly valuable for this industry.

About the author:
Emily Newton is a tech and industrial journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily.

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