(image: © Kuka)
We love to talk about the future, because while we do that, we can forget about today’s problems. Unfortunately when we start to physically build the future we will be back to today’s problems.
At the moment every one of us is working on building the future of electronic manufacturing and is talking and thinking about Industry 4.0 or the Smart Factory, the Internet of Things and robots. It seems that our visions of the future are all pretty much the same and overlap quite well. But there are many gaps between today and the future and also gaps in today’s automated production lines as well as in future fully automated factories.
Today human workers fill the gaps whether it is hardware or software connectivity. In the future most people think that robots will fill the gaps together with networks for communication between the machines. But it will not be as simple as just replacing operators by robots. The challenge will be that humans are the perfect combination out of sensors and actors. They can handle mechanical processes (routines) typically at high speeds because they can combine many senses in an ideal way with experience.
Most mechanical interfaces in a production line especially where materials are handled, replenished or removed are designed for human operators. For example if a placement machine runs out of components and a reel of components must be replenished with a new one or the two component tapes need to be spliced together, an operator would be much faster than a robot if the robot would be able at all to do such a complex task. The conclusion out of that example would be, that today’s human interface is by far not ideal for robots, because it was optimized for humans. This means the interface needs to be adapted to the way how robots can work, but then it would not be ideal anymore for human operators.
Machine interfaces need to be designed different, so that operators and robots can work both with the machines. This must be the next step in the industry, that interfaces are modified and standardized so that robots can work with them as well. But also the available movements of robots need to be standardized as well. One of the problems which we already see today in other fields is that there is typically no hard cut from one technology level to the next. Instead the two levels will be used in parallel for a long time typically. As an example in today’s traffic you will find cars on the roads which have many driver assistance functions and are close to autonomously driving vehicles but on the same roads you find “oldtimers”. It is foreseeable that accidents will happen because of the mix of technology levels.
What we need to do is to find ways how to adapt existing systems (machines) and design new systems to cooperate better with robots and at the same time with human operators. One good example I would like to mention from the world of placement machines is the soon to be released ASM BulkFeeder which has such an easy interface for setting up the component cartridge on the base unit, that it can be done with a simple action no matter if it is done by an operator or a robot in the future.