From Robotics to Artificial Intelligence: how the factory of the future is made

It was in 1961 when the first industrial robot made its entrance into an automotive plant in New Jersey (US). A mechanical arm used for loading and unloading die-cast components developed by two robotics pioneers, Joe Engelberger and George Devol. It was a revolution: robots made it possible to automate complex operations and, at the same time, to relieve humans from performing dangerous tasks. But not only that. It was from that moment that manufacturing began to be associated with the concept of “flexibility.”

Unlike traditional industrial units designed to perform a single operation at a time, the use of robots allows for agile and rapid changes in “what” and “how” to produce. Thus, initiating the first of the great transformations that, in the years to come, will change the face of the factory, culminating in today’s Smart Factory on which Industry 4.0 is based. 

When the first robots begin to populate manufacturing plants, we are in the midst of the Third Industrial Revolution. This is the period that follows an initial phase of development of the manufacturing system that took place at the end of the 18th century and was marked by the birth of the steam engine and the mechanization of production. The Second Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, began in 1870 with the introduction of electricity and mass production and continued until the 1950s and the advent of industrial robotics. 

Witness and protagonist of the stages that led to the construction of the modern factory was Comau, an Italian company and world leader in the design of advanced industrial automation solutions.

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After just a decade, at the beginning of the 1970s, the workshop changed its face again: robotics is perfected with the arrival of electric servo motors and microprocessors, which allow for the exchange and processing of information between machines. The integration of robotic solutions in car body welding lines makes the automotive sector more efficient. It is at that time that Comau launches RoboGate, the first working line in the world on which different bodies can be machined in order to produce, with the same system, several car models. Subsequently, in the early 1980s, Comau developed the so-called FMS (Flexible Manufacturing Systems), flexible manufacturing systems based on linked machining centers that allow the production of different components. Flexibility becomes a key asset for large-scale manufacturing.

Production departments, however, are the forge of continuous technological progress: during the Third Industrial Revolution, information technology reaches the factory for the first time, making it even more streamlined and efficient. It is at this time that the transition from the use of purely mechanical and analogue technologies to digital ones takes place, with the adoption of computerized systems to ensure the standardization of communication and primordial data management. Comau robots are programmed and guided through advanced computer systems to manage work processes, but in order for humans to finally communicate with machines and network plants, we will have to wait for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which coincides with what is now known by everyone as the beginning of Industry 4.0. 

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Nine are the pillars on which this innovative concept of the interconnected and digital industry is based, destined to drastically change the production system: Big Data and analytics, autonomous robots, simulations, integration of information systems, IIoT, cybersecurity, cloud, additive manufacturing and augmented reality. 

Starting from each of these principles, Comau designs the factory of the future, at the service of companies, following a unique and original concept: HUMANufacturing (Human + Manufacturing). According to this approach, people have a leading role in the Smart Factory, where they interact with industrial units thanks to digital tools, enabling technologies, and “intelligent” robotics, within a networked production system.

In the “human scale” factory theorized by Comau, the operator can access work data using Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) digital platforms, such as in Grid, to interconnect and make all industrial units communicate through Artificial Intelligence. The operator works closely with robots and Autonomously Guided Systems (AGVs), safely and efficiently through collaborative solutions designed to help him perform repetitive and heavy tasks. He can work with less physical strain and fatigue by wearing an exoskeleton, such as Comau MATE-XT for upper limbs, that supports his movements when he has to hold non-ergonomic positions for long periods of time. And drive and monitor factory automation in the cloud with mobile devices – such as smartphones, smartwatches, and tablets – without moving from his seat.

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Thanks, once again, to Artificial Intelligence, humans can teach robots how to perform specific tasks by analyzing how such operations have been performed in tens, hundreds, thousands or millions of cases. While technicians – even unskilled ones – can correct processing errors before they even occur in predictive maintenance through “Digital Twins,” virtual twins of production lines, capable of simulating the operations to be performed to make them more efficient. 

Using systems that employ vision sensors and complex AI algorithms, such as Comau Vir.GIL, the operator can perform assembly tasks in a less tiring and safer way. With the help of special tablets or VR Oculus can use Virtual Reality to be guided remotely in performing on-demand maintenance and repair tasks. 

Right here, in the encounter between real and virtual, the Factory of the Future begins to come to life and Comau is already laying the foundations for its realization: a space where technological innovation can support the operator’s work at 360°, constantly adapting to his needs. 

Cobots, drones, digital technologies, autonomous and intelligent systems: industrial automation is conceived to always be “at man’s service” thanks to the combined use of Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Reality, with the aim of constantly supporting companies, shaping, day after day, a more efficient and sustainable way of producing and working.

Watch the HUMANufacturing video here.  

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