The robotics industry today is dominated by a handful of well-established manufacturers that sell highly specialized robots in a highly fragmented industry without common standards or platforms with different robot manufacturers developing their own proprietary hardware and software. This is very expensive and is only cost-effective for large end-users like the automotive industry and for high volume manufacturing. The capital cost of robots, integration costs and total cost of ownership of robotic system have failed to enthuse small and medium manufacturers and it is therefore not surprising that robots have penetrated only a small segment of the manufacturing domain.
Producers of industrial robots have made efforts to develop relatively low cost robotics systems but the results have been unsatisfactory. They have simply shrunk current models, reducing system size and cost. But the rejigged, smaller versions of existing systems often do not mean proportionately low costs. Also, robotic systems remain a challenge to program, requiring specialised engineering expertise and personnel trained in robot programming and maintenance.
Robots that are specifically suited to low-to-medium volume manufacturers should be low cost, simple to set up and reconfigure, programmable by non-technologists and able to work within existing setups without the need for rejigging entire factories.
We are on the cusp of a new generation of inexpensive, easy to use robots costing less than $10,000. These industrial robot arms with payloads up to 10kg, reach up to 1200mm offer repeatability of <50 microns and MTBF of 20,000 hours.
In 2007 Bill Gates wrote about the coming age of robots. “For all the excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when — or even if — this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, it may well change the world,”