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Best of Automate 2023 for Small and Medium-sized Manufacturers

June 23, 2023

We often recommend that small and medium manufacturers (SMMs) make the effort to attend major automation and advanced manufacturing technology trade shows whenever they can. It’s the best way to see the widest range of technologies and talk with industry experts all in one place. The Automate show is one of the largest robot-focused events in the US. Automate 2023, held in Detroit in May, did not disappoint. With over 750 exhibitors from across the automation industry, the show floor was full of great new technologies, creative application demonstrations, and robotics of every shape, size, and configuration. While much of the automation was targeted toward high volume production, there were plenty of opportunities for high-mix and small batch shops. From collaborative robots (cobots), autonomous mobile robots (AMR’s), and AI to helpful new technologies for picking, kitting, and assembly, here is the EWI team’s Top 10 takeaways for SMMs from Automate 2023.

  • Cobots, cobots, and more cobots!  The show demonstrated how the robotics industry is accelerating its focus on collaborative technology. The variety and number of cobots at the show was staggering. We counted 344, up 43% from last year! This included arms from 29 different manufacturers. (Click here to see the full list.) In fact, there were more cobots at the show than traditional industrial robots. Universal Robots and Fanuc dominated the space once again, but there were several newer offerings and also some low-cost options, such as those from Dobot, Igus, and Niryo. Machine tending and palletizing are now staples of the cobot application space and are becoming even more practical thanks to the larger cobots now available. While the original intent of collaborative robots was to make them safe to work around, it’s clear now that the major selling point is their ease of use. Many cobot manufacturers are now employing simplified Google Blockly-style programming which is often used in schools as an entry point into coding. There were also some interesting new technologies and use cases on display. For example, Dobot showed their new SafeSkin which enables the cobot to sense a person or object and stop before a collision even occurs; Brooks Automation exhibited a large collaborative SCARA cell setup to act as a miniaturized automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS); and ABB showed off their new cobot line which is aimed at having the highest tool center point (TCP) speed in its class.

  • The rise of the AMR.  AMR technology is no longer limited to the Amazons of the world. AMRs were highlighted at the show, with a dedicated AMR demonstration pen on the show floor. There is some serious competition among AMR manufacturers to handle larger and larger payloads. Pallet lifters and autonomous forklifts, such as Big Joe, took a large chunk of exhibit hall real estate to prove the ability to automate entire warehouses. Some OEMs, like Locus Robotics, offer subscription models which may be attractive to SMMs, especially if they have the need to scale up or down throughout the year. MuL technologies demonstrated that low-cost and easy implementations are possible with the Wi-Fi free AMR platform. The bottom line: SMMs should now be considering AMRs for their material handling needs.
  • Cobot application of the year? Welding!  Automate was a banner event for cobot welding. Where there were cobots there was likely a welding display. Over the last several years, we’ve watched as welding has gone from “that will never be a collaborative robot application” to becoming one of the top cobot applications. This year provided excellent displays from companies like Vectis, THG, Melton, Hirebotics, Pro Spot, and many more. The focus was clearly on ease of setup and use for both skilled and less experienced welders. Several examples demonstrated just how fast a robotic weld could be setup. ABB even let attendees setup and execute a real weld in their booth! If you’re an SMM that does repetitive welds, we encourage you to explore cobot welding for your shop.

  • Vision systems with AI.  AI and deep learning are becoming a standard in vision systems, allowing tools to adapt over time to become more accurate with less user input. In some cases, this can help with those vision jobs that are difficult to describe using standard vision software tools. Apera AI and Cognex attracted attention with demonstrations of how AI-based vision systems could be deployed for small standalone systems.  AI may still sound like a far-future concept, but SMM’s should be paying attention as the technology is rapidly approaching the manufacturing floor.

  • Automated quality control applications.  Automation has long been used for quality control applications in large factories, such as inspection and measurement. This year’s show did a great job demonstrating how SMMs can leverage robotics to enhance their existing quality control operations. For example, Mitutoyo and Nikon showed how cobots could be used for CMM and benchtop inspection system tending, while Manufacturing Automation Systems, Aubo, and others demonstrated 3D surface inspection and mapping applications. NewScale Robotics demonstrated different types of measurement technologies and end-of-arm-tooling that can be used for 100% automated inspection. Robotic quality control can be a great starting point for a small manufacturer looking to adopt automation.

  • Robot versatility, flexibility, and mobility.  Several demonstrations showed how a single robot could be programmed to handle a wide range of tasks, while some showed how multiple applications could be performed within a single automated cell. This was most evident with the collaborative arms as they were seen mounted on rolling pedestals, carts, linear rails, and even AMRs. Many of them made use of automated tool changers, such as those from Zimmer, ATI, Schunk, and TipleA Robotics, to quickly switch between tools. There are now many ways to get more use of your automation investment – it’s all about creativity – and SMMs can take advantage of these capabilities.

  • End-of-arm tooling (EOAT) for every occasion. Robots are useless without end-of-arm tooling. And as expected, there was a dizzying array of EOAT options at the show. Like the previous topics discussed, there was a focus on ease-of-use and flexibility for EOAT. Some notable examples included new dual-gripper mounting systems with built-in valves that only require one air and one signal cable (Impact); hybrid grippers that combine pneumatics and electronics to provide high force electric gripping (Zimmer); and grippers with quick-change fingers or pins (Kurt Workholding, Zimmer). There are a multitude of EOAT solutions ready for SMM implementation.

  • Cleanliness & appearance.  Cable management systems for articulated arms are nothing new but were everywhere at this year’s show. Igus and Robotrax exhibited examples that highlighted the progress away from the usual Velcro straps and zip ties often used for demo applications. These displays stood out with their clean lines and simplicity – a move away from patchwork systems that many of us are happy to see.

  • Cobots for surface finishing.  Surface finishing applications showed a use case that we strongly encourage SMM’s to consider. Nobody likes to perform these tasks. The force sensing and control capabilities built into the latest generation of cobots make these applications significantly more approachable for SMMs. There were excellent examples of finishing applications on exhibit, including sanding, deburring, polishing, and more. These demonstrations were done on everything from simple flat parts to highly irregular surfaces. FerRobotics, Innovation Tech, ROS Industrial, Kane Robotics, and Flexiv were just a few of the booths showing how SMMs can incorporate these technologies into their process.

  • Assembly & fit-up.  Projector style systems offer SMMs an intuitive and flexible way to guide different types of manual tasks, such as assembly and welding fit-ups. They can also alleviate the continuing challenges of workforce shortages and high turnover. These systems are easy to use and can offer some level of error-proofing on the factory floor. LightGuide’s demonstration of an augmented reality (AR) assembly system was a great example of just how far these technologies have come – and with no AR goggles required!

Are you a small or medium-sized manufacturer looking to incorporate automation into your shop? EWI can help! For help with your operation, contact Matt Malloy at [email protected].