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Robots, They’re (Almost) Just Like Us

As manufacturing jobs continue to go unfilled, next-gen robots, some powered by artificial intelligence, are ready to pick up the slack.

Norbert Sparrow

March 23, 2023

Advances in robotics and automation are coming at an opportune moment. The plastics industry, and manufacturing in general, continue to wrestle with a labor shortage. A well-known study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute predicts that as many as 2.1 million jobs in manufacturing could go unfilled by 2030. With unemployment at its lowest level in more than 50 years, it seems unlikely that the prediction will shift much in the coming years, even if we do enter into a recession. Robots are poised to pick up the slack, and in more ways than we might imagine.

As artificial intelligence casts its spell on automation and robots are designed to seamlessly fit into human spaces and take on human characteristics, there are fewer and fewer positions on the shop floor they can’t fill. Here are some recent developments in automation technology that would be alarming, perhaps, if they took away jobs. In the current context, however, they are simply filling jobs that no one wants.

This cobot isn’t distracted by shiny objects

At Plastec West in February, Universal Robots showcased a collaborative robot, or cobot, that picked shiny parts out of random bins with the help of artificial intelligence developed by Apera AI. The cobot at the event in Anaheim, CA, demonstrated its capabilities by finding and gripping metal parts, but it is equally adept at manipulating shiny plastic parts, said Universal Robots. This is a challenging task for traditional robotic systems, and it is made possible by Apera AI’s Vue robotic vision software.

Apera AI-powered cobot

The cobot from Universal Robots uses vision software from Apera AI to pick shiny parts out of random bins.

Vue software uses AI and machine learning for robotic path planning, grasp intelligence, and collision avoidance. These capabilities are integral to fast and repeatable performance in manufacturing applications such as bin picking, assembly, packaging, machine tending, sorting, and palletizing, said Apera AI.

The application uses millions of simulated cycles before going into production, so the vision system deeply understands the object in every orientation, and in combination with the chosen robot, end-of-arm tool, and operating environment. The total vision cycle time is an industry-leading 0.3 seconds.

Moreover, the system operates under ambient light, and shifts in illumination do not affect performance.

Setup for a work cell using Apera Vue software is simple, according to Universal Robots. 2D cameras and an industrial computer are all that are needed. The cameras are bracketed above the scene, while the industrial PC and screen is placed near the work cell.

A prime application for the Vue-enabled cobot is in medical device and injection molding applications. The capability of picking transparent, translucent, shiny, and reflective objects is a key advantage in medical device assembly and bioprocessing applications, according to Universal Robots, because a lot of assembly, sorting, and handling work is still performed by human personnel in those sectors.

In-mold labeling gets an automated assist

Medical applications are also front of mind at Beck Automation, which recently established a separate business unit operating autonomously to serve the medtech sector. The Switzerland-based in-mold labeling (IML) and automation specialist has introduced an adjustment head for precision label alignment targeting the production of small packaging units of consumables for the medical market.

In current IML systems, the positioning of labels can change during operation, according to the company. This may be the result of a magazine or label change, or it may occur within a label stack because of cutting tolerances. The adjustment head is an integral part of the IML system, which picks up individual labels and measures and aligns them in the desired position. Exact label alignment increases positioning accuracy and reduces waste and manual fine adjustment, said Beck Automation.

in-mold labeling system

Beck Automation has developed an adjustment head for precision label alignment in in-mold labeling systems.

Beck is focused on specialized injection molded medical components that require individual, customized solutions. “Customers benefit from our highly efficient, customized systems that offer sustainable economic advantages,” said Ralf Ziemer, responsible for automation sales into the medical market. “We set ourselves to the highest standards in product and production reliability and ensure this through solutions that are reproducible, validated, and hygienically flawless."   

Beck's automation systems comply with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and the FDA and are suitable for cleanrooms up to Class ISO 7.

Digit robot goes where people go

But maybe you’re looking for a multipurpose robot to do logistics work, since you can’t seem to keep anyone in that job for more than six months? Meet Digit, a creation of Agility Robotics. The so-called human-centric, multi-purpose robot is designed to “go where people go and do useful work safely in spaces designed for people,” to quote the company. The next-generation Digit strutted its stuff this week at ProMat 2023 in Chicago, and you can see its evolutionary development in the video embedded on this page.

Agility Robotics' Digit robot

Next-gen Digit robot will take on dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks and free up staff to do more creative and complex work, according to Agility Robotics.

“Supply chains are still feeling the aftereffects of the pandemic,” said Damion Shelton, co-founder and CEO of Agility Robotics. “Companies are turning to automation now more than ever to help mitigate future disruptions. With logistics labor issues such as high turnover, burnout, and injury continuing to rise, we believe Digit to be the future of work. We look forward to Digit augmenting workforces, taking on the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks, and allowing people to focus on more creative and complex work. We like to think of Digit as enabling humans to be more human,” said Shelton.

Agility is opening up a limited number of spots in its Agility Partner Program (APP) for companies that want to deploy Digit in their warehouse and supply chain operations. Through on-site visits and dedicated engineering resources, Agility will work closely with APP partners, who will have the opportunity to influence the development of new skills and capabilities for Digit based on their real-world use cases. Additionally, APP participants will get exclusive early access to the new Digit before it is commercially available, said the company on its website.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 20 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree. Reach him at [email protected].

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