What’s the difference between Automation and Robotics?

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October 2019

SP Technology’s core business and strapline is “automation and robotics”. So why isn’t it just one or the other? Is there a difference?

Since 1947, the term automation has become ever more commonly used and was kick-started when Ford embarked on its automation business model. This transformed how Ford’s manufacturing processes were performed, allowing tasks to be performed, allowing tasks to be executed more efficiently and making cars more affordable to the “world”.

Robots were first introduced into General Motors around 1962 in order and were introduced to carry out repetitive tasks in the production of their vehicles.

It is quite clear to see that from the above, that automation and robotics have a common theme; to make repetitive tasks safer, more efficient and in many cases improve quality.

So does this make Automation and Robotics the same?

The simple answer is no.

Robots are essentially a standalone “standard” unit that can be programmed to carry out tasks. Out of the box, they are effectively useless unless tooling such as robot welding heads or end of arm tooling (EOT) are designed and fitted to allow the robot to serve some purpose. Industrial robots are becoming an even more affordable addition to manufacturing companies, with a huge leap in robot sales over the past 10-15 years. With the progress being made in Artificial Intelligence (AI), industrial robots are now entering a machine learning phase, coupled up to AI camera systems and learning as they carry out more processes.

 

In addition to industrial robots, collaborative robots are also becoming ever more popular, designed to work next to humans and complete tasks in a safe and repeatable manner. There is an argument on which is better, collaborative robots or Industrial robots? However, they are two separate things. A good way to look at them is to consider an industrial robot being like a mainframe computer, and the collaborative robot is like a laptop, a lighter option that can be made portable, where the industrial robot is heavy-duty and generally fixed.

 

Whether the robot is a scara robot, delta robot, or cartesian robot, they all have one thing in common, to be integrated into an overall automation system which ultimately carries out multiple operations to create a product. In this sense, robotics is similar to a vision or transport system, with respect to a robot only being one specific part of an overall system. When we combine lots of these individual complex pieces of engineering then we create an automation system.

 

More and more companies are beginning to invest in automation, with the mission being to allow them to stay competitive in a growing market place, and although some may see this as being the end of human operators and manufacturing headcount, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Automation and robotics can boast to have created far more jobs than it has replaced, by requiring a new level of skilled worker to develop, install and run the systems. Upskilling and adapting to new tasks is what will keep the work force of today prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

 

To summarise, in general, robotics is just one small part of automation. Many automation systems will not even have a robot as part of the solution. Alternatively, some systems may be as basic as only consisting of a robot that has been mounted with a camera. Robots are just one tool in an array of industrial equipment that can be integrated together to create a semi or fully automated system.

 

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