How manufacturers can keep pace with developments in robotics

Posted on 25 May 2023 by Joe Bush

Protolabs has published its '2023: The Robotics Manufacturing Status Report' highlighting the challenges and opportunities facing the manufacturing industry, as it begins to turn ideas into reality. Stephen Dyson, Client Programs Manager EMEA at Protolabs takes a closer look at what lies ahead.

Innovation is happening everywhere in the manufacturing industry. Since the term Industry 4.0 was first coined, manufacturing has undergone a rapid digital transformation – with sensors, internet-connected devices, AI and cyber physical production systems (CPPS) all being deployed on the shop floor. There has also been a significant increase in the use of robotics.

Historically, robotics was largely deployed in industrial settings, but we’re seeing it emerge in new areas thanks to developments in hardware and software. In fact, over the past decade, robotics has played a role in everything from augmented surgery and elderly care to search and rescue missions as well as in monitoring challenging environments, such as waterways.

The pace of adoption is accelerating – fuelled by the opportunities presented by the availability of new materials. Protolabs’ study, including insights from key players in the industry, revealed that nearly one-third believe new materials will have the most significant impact on how robotics is used within manufacturing over the next five years. Flexible soft grippers, for example, which can grasp delicate and perishable items, could lead to multiple applications being developed for the agricultural and food industries.

However, while new materials present a wealth of opportunities for innovation, it’s crucial to consider how they will be used – as this will affect how parts are manufactured. The availability of materials is also a consideration – as a lack of supply has the potential to slow down development cycles. It’s clearly something that the industry is aware of, with over a quarter of those surveyed (27%) indicating that the material supply chain is the most serious barrier to innovation.

Collaboration – for better design and prototyping

The supply chain has a vital role to play in offering expertise and capability around new materials and product development. Many manufacturers are working more closely with their partners to make better decisions around how and where they can embrace innovation.

Design and prototyping are two areas where collaboration is taking place. By working with digital manufacturing partners, manufacturers are accessing fast and cost-effective options to test, reiterate and test again. They can then work with that partner to manufacture parts using a wide range of hard and soft materials.

Change is not always a clearly mapped out path, it is often a series of small steps that can mean going backwards to progress. When designing a new part, such as the soft gripper example above, it is vital to know whether it can be manufactured in the desired material, at the right price.  Overall costs, minimum order numbers and speed are also important when considering manufacturing options and may affect the material choice.

Minimising the time and costs involved in this process is vital – which is where an iterative design, or Design For Manufacturing (DFM) approach can help – refining the design before any physical prototypes are produced.

Feedback from automated design analysis enables organisations to go through multiple iterations that can be shared internally before a single part is manufactured.  It will highlight if specific areas need to be redesigned before manufacturing and can demonstrate how material choice, availability and quantity could affect price.

Manufacturers should also take advantage of expertise at the prototyping stage. In some cases, using the same material or one that is close to the final product may be essential. Alternatively, a lower cost material for initial iterations and testing might be fine. It may also be possible to use a more cost-effective manufacturing process to produce a smaller quantity of parts for testing. The key is to find the best solution, not just the easiest.

Technologies such as 3D printing, CNC machining and rapid injection moulding all provide a flexible environment for product development. 3D printing, for example, allows even the most complex geometries to be manufactured quickly, and is cost-effective when producing a small number of parts. The range of materials that can be used in 3D printing is also growing, and includes metals, ceramics and soft materials.

Embracing innovation

Robotics is advancing into new areas at a fast rate.  Fortunately, manufacturing technology is keeping pace, to facilitate the production of new parts, in new materials, quickly and cost-effectively.

This has also lowered the barrier to entry for smaller companies and researchers to help them compete against larger players, and is helping to ensure that seed capital and development budgets for innovation in robotics are not spent too quickly. This is significant for the industry, as it’s often within these smaller, more nimble organisations that true innovation happens.

The key now is for the manufacturing industry to tap into the expertise within the digital manufacturing supply chain to unlock the huge potential that robotics presents.

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