With Industry 4.0 coming fast and furious, the world is changing rapidly, and that has a significant influence on the manufacturing sector. In a world where young customers are becoming more demanding, expecting quick delivery of the personalized goods they had ordered is becoming the norm. They would no more go to the shopping mall or the internet to buy their stuffs. This requires flexible as well as local manufacturing (if possible at source) of goods to avoid time-consuming transportation. Amazon's one day delivery is no more working at least for the young.
In order to cater to these new demands, manufacturers and to a lesser extent, shopping malls has to make drastic changes to their business model. A great transformation is in the air: from standard low cost mass manufacturing - to flexi manufacturing that is still fast and cost-competitive. Industry 4.0 technologies, including new ways of industrial automation and robotics, will spearhead this transformation called Industry 4.0 and for good. The three main tenets of Industry 4.0 are Iot, AI and Automation.
Where automation is concern, we have to talk about robots, there being two kinds - industrial robots and collaborative robots (human friendly). By connecting to a central server, database or programmable logic controller the actions of robots can be coordinated to a greater extent than ever before, making full automation a meaningful term to efficiency. They can complete tasks intelligently, in an orchestrated manner with minimal human input and perhaps also accessible from a remote area to achieve maximum output with minimum manpower. And now, it becomes common for autonomous vehicles to help out in the warehouse as well.
In order to realize Industry 4.0's potential, robotic design and their assembly must address hardware challenges around energy efficiency, performance, and autonomy. As motors are normally designed for heavy duties and when you use them for robots whereon there is a huge gap in energy efficiencies. Thus new motors that are designed for robots will have to pass the test of being energy efficient. It is estimated that there are about 350 million robots today and we have to really look at their efficiencies. New motors are now using power semiconductors using GaN technology which will increase motor and motor drive energy conversion efficiency from 93% (from silicon solutions) to 98%. This translates to a more than 50% reduction in energy lost to heat rather than used as power. One other point is that new power units come with shorter connecting wires or they do not need cumbersome cables as the motor is placed nearer the working arms.
As the need grows for robotics that can work independently, independently changes in motors and motor drives will be required along with the computer vision, AI, and machine learning capabilities that modern day software and data deliver. Three important hardware behaviours will be required:
1) Higher precision positioning and control during real-time operation with maximum degrees of freedom and movements
2) Faster response times from signalling to action
3) Multiple motors working simultaneously in a highly orchestrated manner, which requires improvements in motor-drive control configuration.
And once again improvements are made possible with GaN (Gallium Nitride) technology. It is now displacing silicon semiconductors. High speed, high power, wireless charging is another important component of this needed evolution. Wireless charging involves a mobile robot parking over, or adjacent to, a charging pad. And again, no human operator is required to make it work, whilst it make physical connections within a complex docking mechanism. As robot efficiency depend on the shuttling of data from the device to the cloud, and back, it becomes important if we can shorten the path and one of the newer way is to place the computing device nearer to the route of action. This will probably be achieved with edge computing, putting small computing units near to the robotic arm and cutting out most of the informing data to the cloud.