The real cost of robotics

Before we begin, I feel compelled to make an important disclosure: I love robots! Robots are cool. To me, robots are cooler than people, who are only cool occasionally. I especially love industrial robots: They help us “make” things.

Now please allow me to make an obvious observation: Like me, many folks think robots in general, and industrial robots in particular, are very cool. Some of these folks hold high offices in various business enterprises, where they broadcast their love for robots into their working environments.

The media’s current infatuation with industrial robots and automated manufacturing has these guys whipped into a frenzy. I know how they feel, because I feel the same way. How else can you feel after watching a video showing the production of motors for Dyson vacuums? The video is sexy as hell — shiny machines executing a complex dance in perfect unison. It’s a city full of wonders, completely devoid of boring humans.

The conclusion is inescapable: Sir James Dyson must be the overlord of robots. That is, until you see the video on how Tesla Model S is made. Another professionally put-together report from the land of (almost) no workers.

There are many videos like that, and the media is rebroadcasting them with enthusiasm. This leads me to this question: Why the renewed interest? Robots were perfectly capable of automatically manufacturing complex things decades ago. Just look at industries with products that can’t be directly handled by humans: The semiconductor industry, where the product is too small for human hands, has been building vast automated facilities since the IC revolution began and the American auto industry started to fill factories with robots back in the 1970s.

Why is the media taking such an interest now? Because today, the robotics industry has a set of fresh economic and political messages:

  • Robots are becoming affordable.
  • Anyone can benefit from purchasing a robot.
  • Robots will increase our production efficiency.
  • Robots will allow us to “reshore” (run away from China).
  • We will be able to make things in our country again.
  • We will get rid of workers — they are just too expensive and too lazy and kids these days don’t want factory jobs anyway.

Although all of the above are true to some degree, the simplicity of media coverage distorts the real situation. After watching numerous videos showing cool automation in action, it would be easy for you to get the wrong idea about how much effort it takes to automate anything.

A lot of folks imagine the process of bringing a robot onto their production floor as, literally, bringing a robot in.

I will argue, based on my own and my peers’ experience, that a lot of folks imagine the process of bringing a robot onto their production floor as, literally, bringing a robot in. You buy a robotic arm, you install that robotic arm, you’re done.

It’s hard to blame them. Robotic manipulators are what they see in videos. If you hear the words “industrial robot,” what pops up in your mind? The arm! Get one or a couple of these and you are on the way to your company’s automated future. If only it was that simple!

Let’s look at what it takes to create a typical manufacturing cell that assembles something. We start at the moment when you decide to acquire a robot…

Because you know that you definitely need a robotic manipulator, you start your purchasing or your mental journey from getting that arm. So you buy an ABB, KUKA, Toshiba, EPSON or some other brand you saw at the robotics trade show you visited recently. Depending on the brand, your outlay for the arm is perhaps $30,000-60,000. Despite the high cost, that arm is literally… an arm. No torso. No wrist. No fingers. No eyes. And no brains (I’ll get to this later).

Next, you find out that you can’t simply install your robot on any desk. No. It must be a heavy-duty, purpose-built pedestal. These things have enormous weights; they are expensive, too — expect to spend several thousand dollars.

But wait, there’s more. Your robot needs a cage… unless it’s one of those new collaborative robots like UR-10 from Universal Robots. Because they are allowed near people, they move like yoga instructors, putting you to sleep in the process. If you care about doing things fast, you’ll buy a speedy robot — and it will have to be caged. The cage will need to come with some safety equipment, like an emergency stop button, safety sensors and so on. Chalk up several more thousand dollars for the cage and all that safety stuff.

Next, you’ll need to take care of something called an “end effector.” That is the part that attaches to the business end of your robotic arm and allows it to do useful things. End effectors vary, from grippers with fingers for holding things to vacuum heads to electric screwdrivers to an endless array of specialized contraptions. Chances are you won’t find any suitable end effector for your application, so someone will have to build you one. Budget a lot of money for this part of your project.

Human hands are extremely versatile and can do thousands of different jobs. Not end effectors. Your robot will probably have to be equipped with several end effectors for handling different production steps. This will involve the use of a so-called tool changer. It’s just like in Japanese cartoons. One moment that giant robot holds a bazooka, the next it’s a ray gun.

With a tool-changing system, like the one made by ATI-IA, your robot will be able to quickly change between, say, an electric screwdriver and a suction gripper. The bad news is that tool changers are so expensive that adding such a system will easily cost you around 30 percent of what you paid for your robotic arm.

Next, you’ll need to think about giving that arm of yours some ability to sense. Most robots don’t come with “force feedback.” They boldly go where you tell them to go, no matter how many things get smashed along the way. A typical robotic arm with a gripper is about as sensitive as a crab claw (no offense to crabs). A force-sensing accessory will solve that, to a degree, but it will also set you back several more thousand dollars.

Wait, you aren’t there yet. Now you need to think of a way to hold your “parts in production,” i.e. parts that your robot will be working on. Humans come with two hands. We can hold a screwdriver in one hand and secure the part on which we are working in the other. Try doing any kind of assembly using just one hand. You won’t get very far. Well, that’s the situation your robot will be in, constantly, unless it’s one of those cute two-armed ABB Yumi robots (there is nothing cute about their price; you can buy two or three one-armed servants for the price of one Yumi).

So, in order to hold your “parts in production” in place, you’ll need to come up with fixtures and contraptions that are unique to whatever it is you are manufacturing. There are many ways to do this stuff. For example, my company supplies a construction system called UniQb. You can quickly build one-off fixtures and rigs using its “beams.” This part of your project may not be very expensive (in comparison to everything else), but it will consume quite a bit of time.

Alternatively, you can assign a worker who will service the robot while contemplating a philosophical question: “Who works for whom? Does the robot work for me or do I work for the robot?”

This step handled, you will need to think of how your robot will get the parts to work on and output the fruits of its labor. Robots can’t (yet) run to the warehouse and cart back a bunch of parts. You robot is like a master craftsman sitting in the middle of a studio. Everything must be brought to it. For small parts, such as screws, you will need to install “screw presenters” — machines that “offer” screws in the right orientation. Larger parts will need to come on conveyor belts or some other means of transportation. Alternatively, you can assign a worker who will service the robot while contemplating a philosophical question: “Who works for whom? Does the robot work for me or do I work for the robot?”

The next step is to equip your mechanical monster with eyes. With the exception of the aforementioned Yumi, which, in the appropriately mutant fashion features eyes on its hands, most robots arrive at your doorstep completely blind.

You will need to install a vision system consisting of one or more cameras and a processing unit. You will also need to arrange ideal lighting conditions: Cameras are not like human eyes. Too bright or too dark, and the system won’t work. Also, robots mostly see in 2D. There are some new 3D vision systems on the market, but these are still prohibitively expensive. A good vision system will cost you several thousand dollars and a lot of trial and error until you get it to work right.

Also, don’t forget about electric power and air supply. Many robots will require “industrial” power (not the power available “on tap” from your wall outlet). Your system will almost certainly use vacuum grippers or something else that requires “air.” Robots don’t come with compressors. You will need to buy and install one. More $$$ spent.

Are we there yet? Nope! All this extra stuff you now have around your robot will need to be hooked to a single control system that opens and closes valves, activates servos, senses the position of things and so on. Such jobs are typically accomplished with programmable logical controllers (PLCs) or embedded computers.

Last but not least: programming. This part is particularly fun. You will need to teach your robot how to do anything useful. Hello, disappointment. We all grew up watching Star Wars, so we automatically attribute some intelligence and magical powers to our mechanical helpers. Forget it. Robots are not smart. In fact, they are plain dumb. You will need to teach your robot literally every tiny little move. There is virtually no self-learning. Expect a lot of labor. You will be trying, adjusting and, when you thought you were done, you’ll find yourself coming back to adjust some more.

All these steps I’ve outlined require you to be a very skilled professional in a multitude of disciplines. Chances are that you aren’t — and even if you are, it’s unlikely you have time to deal with all this complexity. This is why you will probably hire an integration company to put the system together for you… for a price tag that is twice higher than the sum total of all the parts involved.

In the end, you will look at that robotic arm you started your journey with and realize that the arm is but a tiny part in the long list of equipment that had to be provisioned, installed and configured in the name of your automation project. You see now what it took Sir Dyson and Mr. Musk to fill their factories with hundreds of robots? They approved oceans of work, hundreds of thousands of hours of human planning and design and tens of millions of dollars in equipment costs.

And now for the worst part… Here it comes. Da-dah! These futuristic production lines you see on TV and YouTube are mostly built to handle just one product. Change the product, and you need to redesign your production line. You don’t just tell your robot to “stop doing this thing and start doing that thing right from tomorrow morning.” You start “retooling” — and retooling is expensive and time-consuming.

The U.S. auto industry with its futuristic robots learned this the hard way, while the Japanese (whom we firmly associate with robots) did not go overboard and simply stayed with lean production teams of human workers. Take heed! Before embarking on your automation journey, count how many years of human salaries you will be able to pay by NOT investing into your smart robotic manufacturing cell.

Have I just put you off robotics? I hope not! Like I said at the start of this conversation, I love robots! Robots are cool. There are many excellent reasons to use them. We humans are unpredictable and difficult, and as time goes by we become less and less inclined to take on factory jobs.

Automation is coming, and robots will eventually take over our production lines. I just want you to know that today’s real-life robots are nothing like what the media makes them out to be. Proceed with caution (and deep pockets).