Robotics – A Leading Discipline of the 21st Century

As one of the leading disciplines of the 21st century, the field of robotics is concerned with the design, control, production and operation of robots. Robotic technology has undergone considerable progress over a period of several decades and is accordingly highly complex. It comprises, combines and requires by equal measure an interplay between multiple sciences, disciplines and specialist fields. Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and mathematics play a highly important role, as do information science, and, in particular, the research field of Artificial Intelligence. So as not to lose sight of the moral and social aspects of interactions between man and machine, these disciplines are augmented by cognitive sciences, psychology and biology.

Current developments in the field of robotics are focused, among other things, on collaborative robots, or cobots. These differ from conventional industrial robots in that they operate in direct interaction with humans and are thus not isolated from the latter’s environment by physical protective structures. Therefore, to ensure the safety of people working with robots, various types of external sensor are required. These are used to collect a wide range of data for the purpose of communicating information to the robot and its controller concerning the spatial conditions in which it is operating, including the precise positions of any persons in the vicinity. Other trending themes within the field of robotics include autonomous mobile robots, machine learning, cloud-based software, and the interconnection of mechanical and electronic components by means of communication and information technologies.

The impacts and successes achieved in the field of robotics are multifaceted and of enormous influence on humanity. They exercise a great effect not only on business and science but also on the health sector, the transport system, and the military. The effects of robotics are also clearly apparent when seen in an overall social context, particularly in view of their ability to bring about sustained change to human life, both in its public and private spheres.

Robotics and automation as integral parts of the industrial revolution

Automation plays a highly significant role in so-called Industry 4.0 by optimising processes and workflows by means of independently operational equipment and systems. In this context, digital innovations made in the fields of information and communication technology are primarily incorporated in production processes. The connection between the two is through intelligent automation systems such as robotics and its products. In this respect, automation, robotics and digital transformation can be regarded as directly interdependent; thus a robot can be developed to perform a specific activity with no human assistance, which constitutes an automated process.

The number and selection of work steps to be automated within a value chain is variable. A distinction is made between partial and full automation, depending on the extent to which autonomous or semi-autonomous machines are employed. A process is considered an example of automation if it is completely or almost completely automated.

The reasons for employing an ongoing process of automation are varied, but the main motivation is generally an economic one. The use of robotics, digitalisation techniques and other automation solutions in industry lead not only to increased productivity and product quality but also to reduced waste and more efficient use of time. While on the one hand it is essential from an economic point of view to keep waste and time expenditure to a minimum, the ecosystem and society in general also stand to benefit. In addition to bringing about a general optimisation of production processes, intelligent systems can be employed to save personnel costs. The combined effect of these aspects is to enable firms to react flexibly and dynamically to the market and the competition as well as to general social conditions. Machines and robots are increasingly being used to ease human workloads by performing tasks that are physically strenuous or monotonous; this is particularly the case in the metal and automobile industries.

Consequently, automation, digitalisation and robotics have an impact on the labour market and the position of the individual in a value chain. In the context of production, many areas of activity are undergoing a significant shift. Because industrial robots are able to handle, assemble and process work pieces faultlessly, the activities performed by humans are shifting towards planning, controlling and maintenance tasks. Moreover, the degree of collaboration between man and robot is rising steadily; for all the advances made in systems and innovative technologies, robots are still unable to attain the specific abilities, creativity and implicit knowledge of humans. At the same time, as individual work processes are automated, the value of those that continue to be performed by people increases.

The performance spectrum in the field of automation is not restricted to production halls and indeed extends far beyond such environments. One example of its many applications is the constant regulation of temperature and humidity in private residential buildings. In road transport, automatic gears and parking automation systems are employed to enhance both safety and comfort. Autonomous vehicles will soon be finding their way onto the roads, while the transport of consumer goods will be automated and unmanned drones will be able to supply ordered goods within short delivery times. The use of automation, robotics and digitalisation can therefore be seen to have advantages in a wide range of application areas.

Gears in robotics - construction and structure

Dynamic performance, precision and autonomy – the demands placed on robots are rising all the time, and researchers, developers and engineers are being faced with challenges of increasing complexity. The success and increased acceptance of robotics are primarily down to technical and mechanical achievements. Industrial robots, which have been successfully established in production plants all over the world for many years, provide a good impression of the complexity displayed by robotics.

Although industrial robots perform a wide range of activities and differ from each other through their specific extensions and constructions, they are still largely of the same fundamental structure. This consists of a chain of kinematic members, including a variety of axles and connecting elements, such as swivel, tilt and slide joints. These members are responsible for enabling robots - also referred to as manipulators - or more specifically their gripper arms or systems to move freely through their surrounding space and take hold of work pieces.

The movements of these elements are ultimately enabled by an integrated drive. Safe and reliable power transmission is of decisive and fundamental importance to a robot’s functionality. Precision gears of the SHG-2UH/2SO/2SH series from Harmonic Drive SE are ideal for dynamic and precise applications in industrial robots. With their tilt-resistant output bearing, they support simple and space-saving construction and also have a hollow shaft, which provides space for supply lines, shafts and other media.

In addition to kinematics, gripping system and drive, the internal and external sensory systems are further important robot components. While internal sensors gather information about the current placement and positions of axles and joints, external sensors supply data relating to the immediate environment, i.e. the spatial conditions in which the robot system is operating. The collected data is processed by the controller unit, which specifies and controls the robot’s movements and actions in accordance with its programming.

The history of robotics

Robots are an invention of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and for many people they represent the epitome of information science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. While the developments made in the field of robotics in this period has been considerable, the precursors of today’s modern robots already existed many centuries ago. The first attempts at devising automated machines, which have included mechanical music reproducers and self-opening temple doors, were made in ancient times. In 1737, the French engineer and inventor Jacques de Vaucanson developed both a mechanical flute player that was able to play around twelve different tunes, and a mechanical duck. The latter was able, among other things, to flap its wings and drink water; Vaucanson combined more than 400 components to make it. These and other examples of automated machines and models based on automation were generally prototypes that were not intended for commercial duplication. They were above all the work of researchers and inventors.

It was in 1960 that the field of robotics experienced a breakthrough, when the first industrial robots began to take up their positions along assembly lines. To begin with, these hydraulically powered, statically bound robots were used for welding pressure die-cast components, but it was already anticipated that they would revolutionise processes in production halls all over the world. By the 1980s, industrial robots had established themselves in the industrial sector, particularly in the automobile industry. From then on, robotics developed swiftly, and it was not long before the first mobile robots were designed, produced and put to use. Thanks to advances in technology, the application spectrum of robotics has grown constantly. Today, automation and digitalisation are developing inexorably in virtually all industries, and naturally also in robotics.

Industrial robots: safeguarding efficiency and cost-effectiveness

Robots are meanwhile seen in the industrial sector as extremely important and indeed indispensable tools. While industrial robots have traditionally been of immense significance, particularly in the automobile industry, they have continued to develop through a joint process of innovation and technical advancement, and are now an integral part of the industrial value chain. Robots are certain to retain their fundamental position in the future, thanks to the ongoing use of automation coupled with the continuous search for economy, efficiency and sustainability in industry.

The applications covered by industrial robots are highly varied and differ from one sector to another. Typical applications in production are as handling units for installing, packaging and assembly machines. Industrial robots are also employed to apply coatings, take measurements, and perform grinding, cutting or welding. The requirements of industrial robots vary according to the task spectrum, especially in terms of their mechanical and technical construction. Robots are often used to perform simple work steps and constant, repetitive processes, requiring neither mobility nor sensory capability. In contrast, many sectors comprise value chains that are highly dependent on the use of complex robots. This necessitates the use of sensors and intelligent technologies and also requires extensive programming and control capability.

Mobile, autonomous robots are also instrumental in enlarging the robotic application spectrum in an industrial context. By incorporating intelligent technologies, they are able to operate independently, which makes them extremely useful in many production halls in the areas of transport and logistics. For instance, if materials are needed in the assembly of a machine, they can be transported by specially equipped robots. In this way, the latter function as a link between individual work steps and represent an integral part of the so-called intelligent factory.

Medical robots - Assistant 2.0

The role performed by robots employed in the field of medicine is primarily to assist and lend a helping hand to medical personnel. Their ability to display great consistency in their work performance means that medical robots can shorten operating times and reduce errors that can occur as a result of fatigue. But it isn’t just in operating theatres that robots are demonstrating their usefulness. They are also of great benefit to in-patient care facilities that are strongly affected by the impact of demographic change. The increasing number of people who are in need of care and cannot live properly without regular support adds to the already considerable pressure brought about by the lack of personnel. Medical robots support personnel by transporting blood reserves and bottling samples. In this context, intelligent technologies in robotics are releasing time to enable nursing staff to take more intensive and attentive care of their patients.

In contrast to the impression often conveyed in fiction, the primary purpose of robots used for medical purposes is not to replace surgeons, physicians or carers. Moreover, medical robots principally do not act independently but are generally controlled by qualified specialist personnel. In this sense, robotics and technology create a positive manipulation or optimisation of human abilities – which means they are also of great significance to society as a whole. This can be clearly seen in the field of rehabilitation and the use of so-called exoskeletons, support structures fitted with servo motors that are designed to help people who would not otherwise be able to do so to perform everyday movements and regain their mobility.

Service robots in private households

Robots have become constant companions not only in industrial environments but also in many areas of business and science. In such contexts, man, machine and robot operate virtually hand-in-hand. However, the application spectrum of robots in private households is currently limited to a relatively small number of tasks. Service or household robots are characterised by their mobility and ability to operate independently. For instance, they can perform cleaning jobs, such as vacuum cleaning or mowing the lawn, without requiring any intervention or operation from humans. Supported by specific sensors and task-oriented programming, these robots are able to navigate independently and have shown themselves to be extremely adaptable to any changes in their workspace.

The inherent complexity of the use of robots in domestic households represents a major hurdle for researchers and developers. The environment in which they are used is highly sensitive and extremely dynamic. Most significantly, mobile robots operate in direct contact with people, so there is no tolerance for poorly developed systems or technologies; indeed, it is essential that the system functions precisely and without errors. Moreover, many activities require comprehensive and often varying patterns of movement, work steps and operating conditions. Robot systems must therefore be able to adapt to their surroundings precisely, dynamically and with an ability to learn. The social aspect is also of particular importance here.

Despite the problems referred to, the use of robots in domestic locations is increasing in importance. The crucial factors affecting their development are ongoing technical progress and the increasing degree of acceptance by society. In addition, the success and progress made in the field of robotics in general, including the use of robotics in domestic environments are largely dependent on Artificial Intelligence and the systematic processing of large amounts of information. By automating intelligent behaviour, the aim is for service robots to be able to independently process externally or internally fed information on the basis of past experience. In this context, the guiding principle is to optimise the communication and interaction between humans and robots for the purpose of achieving a benefit.

Robotics in military environments

The numerous application fields of robotics also include terror prevention, disaster control, and military use. Robots developed for military applications, so-called military robots or unmanned military systems, are primarily used in the fields of surveillance, reconnaissance, espionage and guard duty. Already tested in practical use are combat drones, which play a role in reconnaissance and are also fitted with missiles in the event that they need to take on an active role; accordingly they also serve the purpose of target engagement. While these tasks are often currently performed in greatly limited tactical-operational areas, ongoing advancements in automation mean that in future, it will be possible to transfer more and more competences to robots. In this context, the focus is increasingly on the autonomy of robots, which also raises a number of ethical questions. In addition to such aspects as automation, Artificial Intelligence and autonomy, a further trend in the field of military technology is the miniaturisation of structures.

Mechatronic Competence meets Robotics