4 Key Takeaways From FABTECH 2022

FABTECH has once again come and gone and this year’s rendition offered, for the first time since the pandemic, a chance to see everyone’s faces again. With hundreds of companies and tens of thousands of exhibitors and attendees alike roaming around in the Georgia World Congress Center, there was a diverse set of robots, machines, and approaches to manufacturing automation. But what stood out the most?

During our one-week stay in Atlanta, we had enough time to not only talk to some fascinating manufacturers but to peruse the rest of FABTECH to see who and what caught our attention. Here are our 4 biggest takeaways from FABTECH 2022:

An Abundance of Cobot Welding

FABTECH is known for the wide variety of exhibitors showing off new machinery, robots, and software but sometimes, you’ll find several companies displaying the same thing with different bells and whistles. This year, we saw a high number of cobot welders (and welding-adjacent exhibitors too) and counted a total of 37 of them across the three exhibit halls. 

Based on the number of people who came to our booth and asked us about lot-size-one welding solutions (it’ll come!), we can definitely understand the need for new welding solutions, with an average age for welders topping 55 and little helping seeming to be on the way. After all, we listed recurring problems in welding and how to solve them, but current solutions are still mostly suited for higher volume weldments not necessarily the futureproof way of enhancing this process – although they do play their part.

There are always new easy-teach tools being released with the goal of producing consistent high-quality welds, but even with these new additions, the cycle time challenges will continue to persist. Specifically, with lower volume productions, some of the challenges such as teaching and repeatable fixturing remain constant. While they make the end result better, the road to it doesn’t get much easier. Despite this, the demand at FABTECH for autonomous welding solutions shows just how much pain still exists in that world. It is abundantly clear that people are looking for small, low-cost solutions with a willingness to “figure things out” if it does not address each and every requirement in their production process. 

Subscriptions: A Path to Being Recession-Proof?

Every manufacturer, machine builder, and integrator knows how difficult it can be to keep up with a recession. With cash becoming more of a luxury during tough economic times, how do you continue to improve productivity when keeping staff becomes increasingly strenuous? How do you justify spending on robotics solutions when most of them come at a high initial cost all while needing operators?

Instead of investing hundreds of thousands (or more) all at once on integrating a high-mix solution, subscriptions to software-based solutions will lessen the burden of spending all that cash in one spot. With a subscription, it’s clear that you won’t own the software you’re using to solve your problems. What it will do, however, is spread out your bill over monthly or yearly periods. If a subscription consists of an hourly rate far below that of skilled labor burden rates, then suddenly the cost to finish a process becomes more palatable and sustainable for manufacturers looking to save costs and maximize efficiency – and you finally get systems that can address an indefinite variation of parts, which cannot be addressed with traditional robotics today. 

Naturally, there may be exceptions, but very few. Companies that function primarily on liquid cash – a rarity for most – won’t see their cash flow optimized by subscriptions. A company with a usage-based subscription can go up and down on operating expenses and they can shift their usage based on market conditions. 

Subscriptions offer “recession-proofing” because your operational expense can fluctuate with demand, instead of capitalizing highly complex integrations where the payback may not be realized if a recession happens earlier than expected. This kind of whiplash is still what the industrial sector still suffers the most from, despite every other sector having become more agile through flexible payment models. Even if you pay more in the long run, you can not only get more value and a solution that grows to meet more needs – you can also pay less when you need to, a critical feature when urgent cost cutting is required.

Subscriptions are surefire ways of making sure your processes can continue in spite of an economic downturn. By effectively managing recurring payments and enabling more stability and consistency in your skilled labor force (read: more productive labor, less lay-offs), then you can rest easy knowing that you’ll be able to hold the fort during tough times. 

Labor Shortages For All?

The two words that came up the most during FABTECH were “labor shortages.” Of course, this isn’t surprising. Since the start of the pandemic, it’s been especially difficult to replace skilled workers performing manual labor. Now that we’re further removed from the pandemic as ever, manufacturers need the same level of productivity they had prior to 2020.

In theory, people want their cycle times to be as close to zero as possible. Granted, no action will ever be instantaneous, but the more we lessen cycle times, the more efficient everyone will be. If manufacturers add robotic or automation solutions to their setups, they need these new solutions to be efficient. If an automation solution is complex and adds more work to the operators, then what kind of time are you actually saving? 

By switching to smaller, simpler, more modular, and mobile solutions – machines that can function with infrequent or limited oversight from operators – the incremental cost of using your capital will be significantly stabilized, maximizing the speed with which you can get an outstanding payback. As well, by freeing up the operator’s time, they can move on to other tasks that require human input in a different way. Essentially, they can solve more with less.

Skilled Labor, On-Demand: The Power of AutonomyOS™

Though the above points vary in nature, they all share some sort of connection. After all, manufacturers, while they all differ in their work – all face similar problems. Labor shortages, market saturation, and money management can make or break a company. To find a solution that can tackle all these problems, it might benefit your company to take a look at AutonomyOS™, a software that can essentially act as skilled labor on-demand. 

At our booth, we saw several people ask us about processes we expect to support in the future. Our sanding solution with DIY Robotics was well understood from the jump, with manufacturers grasping how the process works quite easily. There is an abundantly clear need for autonomy as a solution to shortages of all kinds.

With AutonomyOS™, you can say goodbye to having skilled workers working around the clock to finish a list of items to be powder coated, sanded and – in the future – deburred, welded or more. Thanks to a OpEx-friendly subscription, and a wide array of ready-to-go processes, all manufacturers will need to do is press a button to have their skilled robots do the tough work (just like the sanding solution at our booth!). It is quite literally skilled labor, on-demand: use what you need and pay accordingly. With the ability to have robots and cobots alike perform tasks without the need for intricate setups by operators, you can unlock productivity at faster rates than ever before.

The advantage of our hourly model – where you only pay for your software subscription in operation – means that you can stick to minimum commitments and add usage through a token system. This overflow can help you manage the ups and downs of production utilization, but also help maximize the utilization and Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) of all the other equipment you’ve capitalized in your facility. 

At the same time, we don’t make you rent equipment – you can still buy that yourself, finance or rent through a third party – but the autonomy which makes it so powerful for high-mix manufacturers is available on-demand and works flexibly to help you meet your growing needs.

The best part? The more you use it, the faster your payback on your entire robotic system.

Industrial Space Continues to Grow and Adapt

The combination of reshoring, labor shortages, and financial uncertainty are forcing everybody to get lean and efficient – fast. This doesn’t mean big massive system integrations – small becomes beautiful. This also means simplicity, minimal training and high-speed payback are essential.

Transformative technology is the only way to do this – old models simply will not do. While many were not at FABTECH and busy minding the store at home, so many more at the show were truly ready for new ideas, new modes of production, and new ways of doing business, because they feel the pain the most. We know many may have stumbled a few times or more in their journey through automation, but fortunately, autonomy is here for you today.

With an AutonomyOS™-enabled robotic machine, you can say goodbye to labor shortages and maximize your efficiency. With the ability to set up behaviors to execute tasks such as paint spraying, sanding, welding, and more, you’ll find all the flexibility you want for your manufacturing needs. Contact us to learn more

Recurring Problems When Programming Robots and How to Move Past Them

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With the increasing abundance of robots, you need a relative increase in engineers to set them up for each company. So how complicated of a process is programming a robot?

The truth is that it’s pretty difficult! There are many factors to consider, including the robot’s capabilities, the space surrounding the robot, how the robot will move, and of course, the programming language necessary to program the robot. 

Robots are essentially motion recording devices that allow you to generate a procedure. The procedure in question – varying from company to company – will likely only be relevant to a single function in which the part processes or other variables remain constant at all times. While this method could still be useful for a number of processes and companies, sometimes it can be done in a smoother fashion.

Let’s go over which problems are the most common and how, exactly, they affect development.

Programming Languages

Like with any verbal language, programming languages exist in abundance. Each language is used for a specific purpose, but it isn’t feasible for a programmer to learn a plethora of different languages. 

Manufacturers and the robots they develop use different languages. What ABB uses isn’t quite what FANUC uses, and what FANUC uses isn’t what Universal Robots uses. Germán Villalobos, an AI and robotics engineer explained in a LinkedIn article that each manufacturer will “have more than [three] different brands installed in their cells and production lines, which further complicates their robot programming training.

Automation engineers and programmers would essentially have to learn each robot manufacturer’s programming language if they want to work efficiently on their assigned robot. However, learning an entire language, let alone a programming language is an arduous task that will take hours to learn and even more to master.

While new programming languages emerge every few years, the main ones still reign with JavaScript dominating. Chart via Devskiller.com

High Costs, Low Time

Based on various reports, including the aforementioned LinkedIn article, it can take over 70 hours to properly learn just how to develop a simple application in any given programming language. Multiply that by the number of robots you have with their own individual languages and add the time it’ll take to complete an automation system, and suddenly you have weeks of training that needs to get done.

The cost of investing in training for every employee who needs to learn an additional language could be astronomical depending on the sheer number of employees. As well, you have to factor in equipment like cameras, computers, and well the robots themselves if you’re buying new technology.

Villalobos estimated that for each person trained, it could cost up to $15,000 per person. That number only gets higher with each new brand of robot a company acquires. To avoid spending all this money on training, it’s important to find alternatives such as hiring employees who are familiar with programming specific types of robots, or simply moving away from programming altogether and opting for a behavior-based robot instead.

While learning isn't inherently a bad thing, it can be a burden for companies trying to keep their employees up to date on new programming languages only suited to a specific robot brand.

The Complexity of Programming Robots

The myriad of programming languages and the high cost might lead you into thinking programming robots is complex. It most certainly is, but those factors are merely small factors in the complexity scale.

Robotics companies don’t even hide how complicated it can be to program a robot. In fact, DIY Robotics has a page dedicated to some recurring problems a programmer will encounter when working on robotics projects. In brief, they describe problems during the programming process that include misunderstandings of the physical limitations and capabilities of the robot. However, to ease the burden, they suggest using tools that each robot manufacturer offers to lessen the burden.

Villalobos continued in his article that robot programming is too difficult to do properly and efficiently work on robots. He argues that robot programming “has the same bases of computer science plus the difficulty of handling the different mechanics of robot arms, electronics controllers with software that differ between manufacturers; and that are also highly customizable for different processes and different industrial quality and safety standards.”

With so many variables to consider along with the rigidness that programming brings, it can be overly complicated to properly program a robot within a reasonable amount of time to perform specific tasks.

Academics and Programming Robots

The complexity of programming robots is not only known to manufacturers but academics have also noted this. In a study conducted by Eleonora Bilotta and Pietro Pantano for the University of Calabria back in 2000, they analyzed a variety of problems including the “difficulties in programming the robot control [and] the organization of the program in relation to hardware, software, behaviors, and performance design in robotics.”  Specifically, they focus on robotics in relation to teaching control to children. While this isn’t exactly manufacturing, their discoveries and criticisms of programming are pretty similar to those encountered in that field.

Across the study, Bilotta and Pantano argue that the current method of programming robots could be better and lean toward modern proceedings including bottom-up robotics and behavior-based robotics. And though 22 years have passed since the study’s publication, some of their criticisms still remain relevant.

They describe some of the pains they encountered with programming, including the lengthiness of the process as well as every external factor that could come into play when trying to execute a specific action. Instead, they prefer to try and work through behaviors.

“From the programming point of view, the behavior space of the robot is defined by the locations the robot can reach (or by the set of actions it has to exhibit in the physical space) and by the transition between those locations. Even if the robot can attain a nearly infinite number of states, it is better to design a useful behavior space in which the programmer limits him/herself to a small number of states,” they state. 

They imply freeing up time thanks to behaviors better understanding the capabilities of robots while not taking up as much time to get them running. Even more than 20 years ago, behavior-based robotics was seen as the future. 

Behaviors for All!

Robot programming is an intricate skill, craft, or trade – call it what you want – but it needs to evolve. In software programming, new languages emerge every decade, or even every few years, either rendering older languages obsolete or confusing older engineers by adding to the amount of knowledge they need to amass to do their job.

Open-source solutions include Swift, Rust, and Kubernetes which only gained popularity over the last few years. They’re far from being the most dominant, but their emergence isn’t negligible.

Machine builders and integrators are not programmers by trade – they’re designers. Designers need simple solutions. They need to be able to do more with fewer (or even) lines of code.

Behavior-based robotics is on the way to becoming the best way for robotics to move forward without the crutch of having to adapt to new languages every time they come out. Instead of relying on preset calculations that can handle a fixed process, behavior-based robotics adapts to its environment to perform a series of heterogeneous tasks. 

They can adapt using sensors essentially telling the robot what the piece is, its dimensions, and how it can best perform the task it was set up to do. All this is done through an interface that is more user-friendly and that takes away the need to parse through hundreds of lines of code.

Setting up an autonomous robot for the first time seems like the dawn of a new era, but it can also be misleading. To the untrained ear, the word “autonomous” sounds like it can do anything based on the power of AI alone, or something along the lines of Wall-E from the Disney movie. While performing any task might be a tall order right now, an autonomous robot can perform a specific task given it’s been programmed to do so. The real question remains: do you still want to be programming robots well into the future?

An example of how behavior-based robotics could work for an open-source project on Github.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, your flexible automation cell will be as powerful as ever. With the ability to set up behaviors to execute tasks such as paint spraying, sanding, welding, and more, you’ll find all the flexibility you want for your manufacturing needs. Contact us to learn more