Meet Your New Coworker
Industrial robots are reshaping manufacturing
Today, robots are more fully integrated into all aspects of the manufacturing process, including parts installation. At GM's Grand River plant in Lansing, Mich., robots are distributed throughout the assembly line, automatically aligning themselves (thanks to a bar code on the car body) depending on which of three different kinds of Cadillac shells is coming down the line. Using C-Flex, a programmable robot that can perform different tasks, such as welding multiple body panels, means a plant can build different models of cars for less money using less space. "C-Flex allows us to add models and evolve the plant as time goes on," says Holland.
Robots are also being used more and more in lighter industry such as consumer electronics and food packaging. "The precision and quality assembly performed by a robot just far outweighs what a human laborer can do by hand," says John Dulchinos, vice president of sales at robot manufacturer Adept Technology in Livermore, Calif. In the cookie industry, for instance, snacks are usually baked, cooled, and moved on 3-to-4-foot-wide conveyor belts at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 cookies a minute. For sandwich-type cookies like Oreos, half the belt has tops and half the belt has bottoms. Thanks to advances in machine vision, robots from Adept can spot where the tops and bottoms of the cookies are on the belt. The robot then tracks the moving conveyor belt and picks up the tops and places them onto the bottoms while the cookies are moving. Robots farther down the conveyor line pick up the assembled cookies and place them into trays. Robots do these tasks at a rate of 75 to 125 cookies a minute.
Then there are services. Automated teller machines and self-service checkout lines are only the beginning. McDonald's has been testing a high-tech grill complete with a robotic burger-flipping machine. InTouch Health, a Goleta, Calif.- based robotics firm, is trying out "companion" bots that scoot around unassisted in long-term-care communities and hospitals. Rigged with a video screen and camera, they allow two-way telecom links between patients, nurses, and off-site physicians. At Valparaiso University, half the library's collection is being placed in steel bins so robot arms can pluck books off the shelves and then drop them off at a station where human librarians can pick them up. Shoppers may soon encounter warehouse stores where the widespread use of radio frequency identification tags on products could enable robots to shelve or grab items at a Home Depot or a Costco.
Humanoid boogie. More and more, robots will interact with people. Carnegie Mellon University has developed the world's first robot receptionist. With its ability to detect motion, the device senses and greets visitors. And if receptionists become a victim of robotics, office clerks might not be far behind. Robotics expert Dick Slansky of the ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass., thinks that Honda's much hyped humanoid-looking, Gary Coleman-size Asimo robot could end up being a prototype for a generation of gofer robots with good eye-hand coordination. Such machines will "be given simple tasks like fetching things and moving things, leaving humans to do administrative tasks," he says.