The new era of robots in industry

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Robots came to the industry in the sixties. Since then they increased their presence gradually, until in the 2000s when that growth stagnated. In that decade, around 100,000 units were sold annually. But something happened in 2009 so that sales quadrupled from then on: China joined the list of customers and the growing consumer electronics industry entered fully into the fight for robots, whose technology until then seemed like a redoubt at the service of the automotive. The last leap has been that of logistics, with machines dragging pallets and reading codes to select the box of the product that had to be delivered. This type of industrial machinery could reach 120 billion euros this year and double in 2028, according to estimates by The Business Research Company, after the contraction that occurred during the pandemic and in subsequent years. “In the coming years the «Demand is going to amplify, because robots ensure quality and productivity,» says Marc Segura, president of the robotics division of the Swiss group ABB, one of the main players in the sector, with sales of 3.4 billion euros (3.64 billion euros). dollars) in 2023. Aware that his statement is questioned by the latest data – orders fell 26% last year – Segura endorses the future of the sector because he sees it as a lever to overcome one of the greatest risks to that the industry faces in the coming years: uncertainty and necessary flexibility, which are combined with the lack of qualified labor in many areas. “We have to take it as something positive, because one way to mitigate the risk of uncertainty is for your factory or warehouse to be very capable of adapting to the new conditions,” he points out. In fact, ABB is trying to turn this confusing new situation into a wind that plays in its favor and, in part, it is building part of that future based on the acquisition in 2021 of a Burgos company, ASTI, specialized in autonomous mobile robots. “This is a bid to create a new factory architecture: we break long production lines into smaller pieces and connect them with mobile robots,” Segura tries to simplify. One of the current problems of any assembly line is that one process leads to another, with very limited options to change manufacturing, but the problem comes when that uncertainty that Segura mentioned is necessary to take it to the factory and adjust it quickly. For example, car brands that assemble electric, hybrid or combustion cars on the same line depending on market demand. Or the color that customers request. “We want our flexibility to allow, if a new variant has to be added to production, to add a new production cell and make that mobile robot allow production units to be moved to other work cells without having to change the entire factory, such as it happens now. It is a paradigm shift in the architecture of factories.”Segura explains that this model change is important for car or mobile phone brands, but even more so for their suppliers, whose production is closely linked to the sales they detect. the manufacturers but whose information arrives later and with urgency. “Adapting with so much uncertainty is a challenge and we are not going to change this reality, but we can change the way we produce, because it will be an element of resilience,” says Segura, who talks about mobile robots as another resource, like the that will offer artificial intelligence, in which ABB has been working since 2015, with centers in Santa Clara (California) and Barcelona. “Until recently, robots were very stupid,” he says about what he considers to be changing. These old machines were underdeveloped because they moved in environments prepared for them, in which unprogrammed changes were not conceivable. With analytical artificial intelligence, cameras and sensors were introduced and they began to carry out a learning process that has allowed them to advance in some tasks, but the industry has faith that this artificial intelligence will evolve to generative intelligence, which even allows interaction with language. natural, without the usual lines of code that send orders to robots today. “Although we will still need a few years for that,” assumes the manager, who considers that where there is more room to cover is in distribution and logistics, with thousands of variables that change continuously, although they will end up being fundamental in maintenance tasks, e hospital services… “where the environment is absolutely unpredictable.”

China's challenge

The other great challenge that robotics faces is in China, after the local government introduced it in its five-year plan at the end of 2021. The Asian giant has demonstrated both in the manufacture of electric vehicles and renewable energies, that introducing a economic vector in its temporal planning ends up becoming a risk for large manufacturers, which in this case are distributed between Japan and Europe. “Many companies are going to emerge in the sector, but above all one or two will stand out that are going to be very strong and that, after controlling the Chinese market, are going to go out and export,” assumes Segura, who like other European manufacturers does not criticize Chinese competition under the argument of state aid. China currently represents half of the global robot market and ABB is convinced that it has to play hard there with a trade policy. “China for China”, as other European manufacturers such as the Volkswagen Group have done. A year ago, the Swiss group opened a factory in Shanghai after an investment of 140 million euros and has an R&D team based there, thinking about specific products for the local market. Follow all the information from Economy and Business on Facebook and xor in our weekly newsletter