EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second piece of a two-part report examining robots in Canada’s auto industry. You can read the first part here.
The robots are breaking free from their cages.
Industrial robots have been working in the automotive industry for decades, but for the most part, they have been behind fences to keep them segregated from humans for safety reasons.
But now, because of machine learning and technological advances in sensors for vision, a new type of robot — smaller, more flexible, much more intelligent — is operating near human workers on the factory floor.
These smaller, collaborative robots or “cobots” are increasingly being employed by global suppliers such as Ontariobased Magna International Inc. and Linamar Corp. They perform tasks such as visual inspection of parts or picking out components on an assembly line, tasks that might be boring to humans but until now were far too complex for machines.
A VISUAL IMPROVEMENT
The technology is profoundly changing the way many jobs are done, said Linamar CEO Linda Hasenfratz.
“They are enabling us to automate tasks that we couldn’t automate in the past.”
Vision inspection is a good example, she said.
“We have the highest turnover rate in visual inspection because you are literally staring at parts all day, looking for defects.” Cobots help alleviate that task, Hasenfratz said, freeing people to do more complex jobs.
Cobots have had limitations. They are slower than industrial robots, the amount of payload they can handle is limited and they are not as durable, but advances are being made.
Alexander Zak, Magna’s director of research and development in advanced robotics, said his team recently developed a cobot that can operate at 10 times the speed of other cobots currently on the market and handle double the payload.
“We worked with our technology development partners to design the system, and we launched it at our plant in Austria in 2019.”
Magna’s Canadian plants also are deploying cobots and are looking at more applications for the technology throughout their operations, he said.
The evolution of cobots is also connected to the developments in autonomous-driving technology, Zak said.
“We are working with our peers who develop autonomous vehicles so that we can take the fundamental algorithms and apply them to robots,” he said.
William Melek, director of one of the biggest robotics research centres in Canada — RoboHub at the University of Waterloo in Ontario — said autonomous vehicles are a type of robot. If you think about depth perception, planning, mapping and navigation, Melek said, “These things in autonomous vehicles are all applicable to cobots.”
Linamar is currently building a new research and innovation hub in Guelph, about 95 kilometres west of Toronto, to pursue the next generation of technologies for industry. The company also recently invested in Toronto-based Synaptive Medical Inc., which has developed technology that includes a robotic digital microscope. There, again, advances in one type of robot — for surgical purposes — could cross over into industrial applications as well, Hasenfratz said.
NEW TYPE OF SUPPLIER