What is the difference between robotics and automation?
In traditional terms, automation is a very broad category that refers to the use of software, machines and devices that are designed to perform tasks usually performed by humans. For example, business process automation is software designed to improve business processes. Meanwhile, robotic process automation (RPA) refers to software agents (or software robots) with AI and machine learning capabilities that can use computer software like a human would. You may be asking “Who uses robotic process automation?’ RPA is used to automate labor intensive workflow, infrastructure and back office processes, making them a great fit for large companies with large scale human resources, IT and finance departments.
You may also be asking “Is robotic process automation AI?” RPA offers smart solutions, but it’s not the same thing as artificial intelligence. RPA is a software robot that mimics human actions, whereas artificial intelligence is the simulation of human intelligence using computer software.
The term ‘robotics’ specifically relates to machines that can see, sense, actuate and, with varying degrees of autonomy, make decisions. It is also a broad category, encompassing drones, service robots and Mars rovers, but in the context of traditional robotics and manufacturing, the machines being referred to here are industrial robots. Industrial robots are physical hardware and are used to inspect, assemble, package and palletize physical products. Automation is a term that includes software agents with no hardware, and robotics is best understood as a sub-category of automation.
What is automation and robotics engineering?
Automation engineering refers to the design and development of software, machines and other devices used for the purposes of performing a task typically performed by humans. Robotics engineering refers to the design and development of robots; it incorporates software, hardware, sensors and other devices, specifically for use in robotics applications, such as quality inspection, assembly and packaging.
Traditional vs collaborative robots
Another important distinction to keep in mind is that between traditional industrial robots and ‘collaborative robots (or ‘cobots’). Collaborative robots have transformed traditional understandings of automation, of robotics and of the relationship between human labor and robots.
A niche product just a decade ago, cobots are now the fastest growing segment of the global industrial robotics market. A recent report from the International Federation of Robotics found that cobot installations grew by 11% in 2019, “in contrast to the overall trend with traditional industrial robots.” Why are cobots growing in popularity?
Advantages of collaborative robots
Cobots differ from traditional industrial automation in several important ways. While traditional automation is characterized by fixed hardware designed to handle one specific product part, cobots are designed to be mobile and easy to reprogram to run on different tasks. This means that manufacturers using cobots can handle high mix/low volume production batches without having to make huge changes to their automation setup. Traditional robots may perform superbly at a specific task, but cobots offer great flexibility and the potential for widespread redeployment throughout your manufacturing facility. It may take weeks or months to change traditional, static automation just to accommodate slight product differences; a cobot can be reprogrammed to handle new parts within hours. Similarly, traditional automation tends to be developed for a single purpose or application, whereas cobots can be used on different types of applications from assembly to quality inspection to welding.
Traditional robots are difficult to program, often requiring expert coders at great expense. By contrast, cobots are designed for ease of use. Because they are easy to use, cobots remove a major barrier to automation adoption among small-to-medium size businesses. Traditional automation often requires engineering and/or robotics experience and can take weeks to complete, whereas end users are ready to use cobots from Universal Robots after taking a short online training course through the Universal Robots Academy. For example, ASSA ABLOY, a New Zealand-based company that specializes in door and window opening solutions, evaluated three industrial robot arms to see how well they performed lock assembly and screwing tasks. Eventually the company selected a UR5 because its “ease of programming was unmatched.”
Another crucial difference between traditional industrial automation and collaborative automation is cost. Even relatively simple traditional automation can set companies back hundreds of thousands of dollars, even before ongoing programming and maintenance costs are taken into account. Cobots cost much less than their traditional counterparts and with UR offering cobot leasing services, it’s possible to enjoy the benefits of automation without making a huge capital outlay. So, while automation was once the domain of large companies, cobots make it possible for companies of all sizes to adopt robot technologies.
Traditional robots require safety fencing and signage to ensure that no harm is caused to human workers. This keeps workers safe, but it also means that traditional robots take up more precious floorspace and that human workers cannot share the same work area as the robot. Cobots incorporate safety features —such as force and speed limits and coming to a stop when a human gets too close— that make it possible for humans and cobots to share the same work area.
For example, Multi-Wing CZ is a small company in the Czech Republic that manufactures axial fan solutions for ventilation applications. They needed to introduce automation to keep up with growing demand, but its facility wasn’t big enough to accommodate a traditional industrial robot. The company chose a UR5 for its automated lathe. Since UR’s cobots don’t require safety fencing, it is possible to deploy them even when floorspace is at a premium. With the help of the UR5, Multi-Wing CZ freed an additional 336 hours of capacity per year, reduced the production cost of each unit by 10-20% and made annual savings of nearly EUR7,000.
Collaborative robots are transforming the relationship between humans and robots, which has traditionally been seen as adversarial. Whereas traditional robots are designed to eliminate human labor, cobots are designed to complement it. This means that manufacturers of all sizes can benefit from the best that both humans and robots have to offer. Humans provide creative problem-solving capabilities and situational flexibility and cobots provide the reliability and precision you expect from robots. Using cobots allows manufacturers to free humans from repetitive and dangerous tasks, while at the same time reducing human error and improving overall productivity and quality.
Universal Robots further enhances the capabilities of your cobot through UR+ —a global ecosystem of components, software, and application kits that have been validated and certified to be mechanically, electrically, and digitally compatible with cobots from Universal Robots.
In recent years, robotics and automation have been enhanced by advances in artificial intelligence (AI). As a result, AI-driven cobots are emerging as an important component of Industry 4.0. There are six main capabilities of AI-driven cobots that manufacturers should pay attention to:
Monitoring: This ability makes it possible for a cobot with AI to, for example, detect changing workspace conditions and to monitor and optimize workspace operations.
Vision: With AI-powered vision systems, cobots can recognize the presence and orientation of parts; perform inspection and dynamic pick and place tasks as well as read results from testing equipment and make decisions accordingly.
Adaptation: Using this trait, an AI-driven cobot can adjust task orientation as machines move; adjust the force control required to pick parts from a stack; detect and evade collisions and respond to errors with retry strategies.
Learning: An AI-driven cobot that can predict and diagnose failure conditions; identify patterns in ongoing operations and apply insights gained to drive better performance.
Deployment: An AI-driven cobot can be put to work in hours; it is also able to re-use task information, share and communicate it with other robots and motion control systems.
Extensions: An AI-driven robot can control other machines; orchestrating activities and improvements in nearby equipment.
Collaborative robots play an increasingly important role in today’s manufacturing facilities. Their flexibility, ease of use, low cost and small footprint have created a plethora of opportunities for manufacturers of all sizes.
As we return to the difference between ‘robotics’ and ‘automation’, consider the terminology that is applied to cobots.
…industrial robot arms (but not of the traditional type)
…robots (of the collaborative type), and
…a form of automation
Robot arms produce the technologies that we use to automate our daily lives, from smartphones to smart home devices and voice assistants.
If you consider the ways we automate our daily lives and the difference between the terms robotics and automation becomes clearer: we automate our daily lives through software embedded in smartphones and other devices, but, with the possible exception of robot vacuum cleaners, we don’t yet automate daily physical tasks using robots. Automation is part of our everyday lives, but robots are not.
Robotics and automation are part of the daily lives of manufacturers however, as they produce the electronic devices we use to make our lives easier.