Industrial robot trends and types

Cover story: Diversity of robotic trends, types, and programming advances make the use of robots attractive to consider in more applications and industries, and resulting innovations should benefit manufacturing. See 10 robotic software trends and 9 robot types.

By Mark T. Hoske July 14, 2015

Robots are used in many industries including 3D printing, amusement parks, agriculture, assembly, construction, electronics, entertainment and theater (actor, props, set, and stage motion control), logistics and warehousing, manufacturing, medical, mining, transportation (self-driving vehicles), space exploration, sports (robotic cameras), and toys, among others.

Robotic design innovations and end effector ingenuity applied in one industry can be adapted for other industries. Many robotic contests, in many industries, inspire engineering minds of any age for education, fun, service, and technology advancement. High-profile efforts have aimed to adapt robots for firefighting, search and rescue, monitoring and inspection, and disaster prevention in hazardous locations (such as navigating to and turning off a valve where it is too dangerous to send humans).

In manufacturing, safety and prevention of lifting and repetitive injuries are among factors improving return on investment (ROI) calculations. See related links online (and the next article in print on ROI, with more on mobile robotics).

Ten robotic software trends

Robotic controllers are becoming smaller and less proprietary; even a programmable logic controller (PLC), programmable automation controller (PAC), industrial PC (IPC), PC, embedded controller, or motion controller from a nonrobot manufacturer can be used for robot control.

Advances in networking allow smoother communications and collaboration among other robots and other systems, working in a wider collaboration, advancing the goals of smart factory, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and Industry 4.0 frameworks. Robotic software and robotic programming are becoming easier and more flexible in 10 ways:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) allows past actions, or a downloaded historical database, to help a robot learn and adapt to new situations more quickly.
  • Cyber security conventions increasingly are becoming integrated in and around robots to ensure malicious code isn’t introduced or unauthorized remote control is not allowed.
  • Function blocks, pieces of programming (code) representing certain robotic motions (kinematics), can be offered by the software vendor and augmented by the end user, original equipment manufacturer, machine builder, or system integrator.
  • Interactive sensory input and instructions can be transmitted from end effectors (tools or manipulators: the business end of the robot), sensors, and other devices and systems. Examples include machine vision or radio frequency identification chips embedded in tooling for additional automated operations, error-proofing, and higher quality, with ability to sense and compensate for tool wear.
  • Open-source programming allows software to be used across multiple vendors’ robots.
  • Move-to-teach functions allow some robots to be guided along a path, learning along the way, perhaps asking when or if A to C is acceptable, rather than A to B to C; see also AI and wizards.
  • Simulations replicate robot and its environment in software, allowing full testing of end effectors, multiple robot or machine combinations, safety elements, and tasks, proving design and operation prior to implementation or purchase.
  • Universal programming software can import and integrate robotic kinematics (guiding robotic motion) in a unified process, from design through operation; see also simulation.
  • Wireless teach pendants provide more mobility than wired human-machine interfaces, including some robotic software that can be used on commercial tablets.
  • Wizards guide the robot tender or fleet manager through simplified programming without coding, in a step-by-step flowchart roadmap with pull-down choices, fill-in boxes, and prompts.

Nine industrial robot types

Industrial robot types vary and can include elements of more than one type. For instance, an articulated robot can be integrated with a gantry or mobile robot.

Nine industrial robot types and functions include:

  • Articulated robots have a rotating trunk, shoulder, bicep, forearm, and wrist. They can place small parts accurately and can pack and palletize.
  • Cartesian robots have at least three linear axes of control and can be configured for heavy operations (transporting auto body parts) or precise operations like creating detailed designs on a surface; see also gantry robots.
  • Collaborative robots are designed with force-limiting sensors and/or safe-speed and torque functions, so, depending on the application, they may be able to work in close proximity to humans without a safety enclosure. So far, these have been of the articulated robot design. Sensors can be applied to traditional robots, applying limits to speed and force when humans are near. Technology advances are moving faster than robotic safety tests and safety standards, although some guidance and advice for implementation are available in robotic safety documents, conferences, and articles. Some robots, with two-arm configurations, can take on humanoid attributes from the waist up; it may be more practical or desirable to adapt the robot to an existing process rather than adapt or redesign a process to adapt to traditional robot form factors.
  • Delta robots are a high-speed form of parallelogram robots for top loading and infeeds, used for packaging, pharmaceutical, assembly, and clean-room applications.
  • Drones, while mostly remote controlled at this point (so not truly robots), are being applied to industrial applications, such as safety inspection, monitoring, or scientific exploration, in hazardous locations, rugged terrains, underwater, and in space. More will gain autonomous capabilities, becoming mobile robots, reporting back or seeking instruction as needed.
  • Gantry robots are so-called because of the linear rail upon which they are mounted, providing (usually) overhead horizontal mobile access to a larger work area. This can offer another axis or two of motion and mobility to another robot type, such as an articulated robot, mounted to the gantry frame. Uses for gantry robots include pick and place, assembly, machine tending, and others. The same idea can be applied in vertical, circular (cylindrical), or polar (spherical) configurations.
  • Mobile robots, used for material transport, warehousing, fulfillment, and services, including machine tending, are rapidly expanding, as sensor and navigation technologies, combined with advance algorithms (programming), have increased their speed and flexibility. These can combine other motion capabilities and make autonomous navigation decisions beyond more traditional automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that may use tracks, guides, or tape for navigation; see also drones.
  • Parallelogram robots use three parallelograms and rotating levers operated by servo motors or linear actuators. They often perform pick-and-place operations.
  • Selective compliant articulated robot arm (SCARA) robots, with arms rigid in the Z-axis and moveable in the X-Y axes, often perform assembly operations. SCARA robots can be faster than Cartesian robots and have a small footprint but are often more costly.

– Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

  • Advances in robotic form factors, controllers, communications, and software make robots appropriate for more applications and industries.
  • Easier and more flexible software and programming conventions allow setup and use by a wider range of people.
  • Different types, forms, and sizes of robots and end effectors are available.

Consider this

Have you recently performed return on investment calculations for the latest robotic-enabled systems?

ONLINE extra

See related articles below on:

  • Cost and ROI of a robotic workcell
  • More on robotic types
  • Collaborative robot examples
  • Machine vision for robotics
  • Reasons to buy a robot.

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.