Industrial Goods

New Jobs
for Robots

Industry, services, and trade have been seeing a continuous rise in the use of robots for years now. The trend shows no sign of abating, for the simple reason that robotics makers like ABB keep finding new jobs for their products.


Leonardo Leani, Division Manager Robotics & Descrete Automation at ABB (left), discusses the potential of ABB’s Yumi collaborative robot with Claudio Brusatori, Partner at Porsche Consulting Italia. Porsche Consulting/Gabriele Zanon

Robots weld, sol­der, paint, trans­port, and work hand in hand with peo­ple in many ways. They have become a ver­i­ta­ble fix­ture in indus­try and the ser­vice sec­tor. A glance at the num­bers reveals the impor­tance of these tech­ni­cal assis­tants, espe­cial­ly in indus­try. Accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Robot­ics (IFR), around one mil­lion robots were in use world­wide in 2010. This fig­ure tripled to more than three mil­lion by 2020. That doesn’t sur­prise Leonar­do Leani, Divi­sion Man­ag­er for Robot­ics & Dis­crete Automa­tion at ABB in Italy. “Com­pa­nies are installing robots to opti­mize pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, lower costs, and ulti­mate­ly increase their prof­its. In effect, the robots are mak­ing them more competitive—on a sus­tain­able basis.”

Robots are indeed mov­ing into ever more areas of appli­ca­tion. The e‑commerce boom of recent years has spurred the rise of autonomous, intel­li­gent, and secure sys­tems for load­ing and unload­ing pack­ages. New pos­si­bil­i­ties are also aris­ing in con­nec­tion with e‑mobility. In many places, for exam­ple, charg­ing process­es for elec­tric vehi­cles are facil­i­tat­ed by auto­mat­ed assis­tants. Togeth­er with the U.S.-based com­pa­ny Dor­man, ABB has suc­ceed­ed in automat­ing the reman­u­fac­ture of elec­tric car batteries—at an impres­sive rate. With robots, man­u­fac­tur­ing time can be short­ened by 66 per­cent and the daily out­put of “bat­tery packs” can be tripled.

More than a million robots are active worldwide in industry alone. Leani (left) and Brusatori view a range of applications for these intelligent machines on a tour of the ABB Robotics Technology Center in Vittuone. Porsche Consulting/Gabriele Zanon

In addi­tion, robots are incor­po­rat­ing ever more inno­va­tions from relat­ed tech­nolo­gies such as arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, machine learn­ing, cloud com­put­ing, and 5G mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Around ten times faster than their 4G pre­de­ces­sors, 5G sys­tems can trans­mit high­er vol­umes of data with­out time lags. This in turn encour­ages new Indus­try 4.0 solu­tions and also enables robots to be used in teleoperations.

Higher productivity thanks to robots

Despite the ben­e­fits they offer to indus­try now, robots were the cause of some con­cern in their early days. Clau­dio Brusatori, Part­ner at Porsche Con­sult­ing Italia and head of the ABB client team, recalls the fear that machines might end up mar­gin­al­iz­ing humans. But instead of dis­place­ment, ever more indus­tri­al strate­gies have peo­ple and robots work­ing togeth­er. “User-friend­ly, sim­ple, agile, and quick-response robots are now being designed to inter­act close­ly with humans,” he says. “They’re evolv­ing from tools into high­ly devel­oped and col­lab­o­ra­tive machines—that enhance process­es and pro­mote employ­ee well-being.”

Even if robots were to replace humans, that would be in areas we wouldn’t miss, explains Brusatori. “Robots are reliev­ing humans of the need to enter haz­ardous sites or toxic envi­ron­ments. They can carry heavy loads under adverse con­di­tions and are not impact­ed by con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed sub­stances.” Even for­mer skep­tics now rec­og­nize the ben­e­fits robots can offer in terms of sus­tain­able and pro­duc­tive work. Ini­tial reluc­tance has given way to a new sense of opportunity.

Paradigm shift in production processes

“We’re see­ing a real par­a­digm shift in pro­duc­tion process­es,” con­firms ABB man­ag­er Leani. “Robot­ics have proved to be a sim­ple and ver­sa­tile means of increas­ing qual­i­ty and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty here in a wide range of indus­tries.” Although more com­pa­nies want to enjoy the ben­e­fits of mod­ern robot­ics, they are not always will­ing to invest the large sums need­ed for high-grade tech­ni­cal sys­tems. Man­u­fac­tur­ers like ABB have respond­ed to this stance by offer­ing new sales models—including rentals for defined peri­ods of time—to attract cus­tomers, includ­ing those cau­tious about their cash flow levels.

Enrico Cassani, Robotics Technology Center Supervisor, explains to Brusatori how the Yumi robot can adapt superbly to working with people. Porsche Consulting/Gabriele Zanon
Yumi commands an astonishing degree of precision. Its two gripper arms can easily master even fine motor skills—including manipulating a Rubik’s Cube. Porsche Consulting/Gabriele Zanon
Yumi doesn’t need a break after working with its human partners—and can even serve them a fine Italian coffee. Porsche Consulting/Gabriele Zanon
The GoFa is equipped with special sensors, making it possible to combine the performance of an industrial robot with the safety and ergonomics of a collaborative robot. Porsche Consulting/Gabriele Zanon

Long-term devel­op­ments like Europe’s short­age of qual­i­fied work­ers give Leani yet more rea­son to believe com­pa­nies will con­tin­ue the trend toward “robot col­leagues.” A sur­vey of 1,650 inter­na­tion­al deci­sion mak­ers in the indus­try con­duct­ed by ABB and the mar­ket research insti­tute 3Gem Glob­al Mar­ket in Jan­u­ary 2021 under­scores this trend as well. Some 85 per­cent of its respon­dents con­sid­er the Covid pan­dem­ic to have cat­alyzed wider use of auto­mat­ed tech­nolo­gies. Near­ly as many (84 per­cent) expect their com­pa­nies to intro­duce robots or other auto­mat­ed sys­tems with­in the next decade, or to fur­ther expand their exist­ing systems.

Sales data from IFR present a more sub­dued pic­ture, how­ev­er. The num­bers of indus­tri­al robots installed in 2019 and 2020 are con­sid­er­ably lower than those for 2018. A record num­ber of 422 sys­tems was installed in 2018, but only 382 in 2019. How­ev­er, the num­ber of sys­tems deliv­ered under Covid in 2020 then remained sta­ble at 384.

Addi­tion­al fac­tors could con­tribute to uncer­tain­ty on the mar­ket. A tec­ton­ic shift in the cus­tomer struc­ture for indus­tri­al robots took place in 2020. Ever since the first indus­tri­al robots were sold to Gen­er­al Motors in 1961 and installed at its plant in New Jer­sey, the auto­mo­tive indus­try has been the largest buyer of these tech­nolo­gies. In 2020, how­ev­er, the role of pre­mi­um client was assumed by the elec­tron­ics sec­tor. The reper­cus­sions of this chang­ing of the guard can­not be pre­dict­ed with any cer­tain­ty at present.

Leani keeps an eye on everything from ABB’s control center. The ABB manager will have to meet an increase in demand because robot sales are expected to rise sharply by 2030. Porsche Consulting/Gabriele Zanon

ABB seeks to significantly lower customer carbon emissions

Leani and his col­leagues aim to fos­ter sus­tain­abil­i­ty not only in sales. ABB also wants to shoul­der respon­si­bil­i­ties and help lower car­bon emis­sions. Leani has set ambi­tious tar­gets. He wants to help his cus­tomers reduce their annu­al car­bon emis­sions by at least 100 mega­tons by 2030. That’s approx­i­mate­ly equiv­a­lent to the annu­al emis­sions of 30 mil­lion cars or 40 coal-fired power sta­tions. “This is a way to achieve car­bon neu­tral­i­ty at all our plants and lower emis­sions along the entire sup­ply chain.”

Leani is chart­ing a mod­ern­iz­ing course in other areas as well. He places a pre­mi­um not only on employ­ee and con­trac­tor sat­is­fac­tion, but also on gen­der, gen­er­a­tional, and LGBTQ+ diver­si­ty and equal­i­ty at the com­pa­ny. “In terms of gen­der equal­i­ty we’re try­ing to even our num­bers for man­agers as well as employ­ees by 2030,” he says. Pro­mot­ing a good work­ing envi­ron­ment seems like an excel­lent idea when there’s a short­age of skilled workers—especially in areas where robots can­not yet be used.

The ABB Group

Founded in 1988, the ABB Group and its predecessor companies can look back on more than 130 years of outstanding innovations. The company’s origins lie in the merger of ASEA and BBC, which were founded in 1883 and 1891, respectively. Represented in more than 100 countries, ABB Robotics is active in the robotics, energy, and automation sectors. These are subdivided into four macro-fields: electrification, process automation, motion and robotics. ABB has achieved impressive market success with products like the FlexPicker packaging robot designed in 1998, the world’s first truly collaborative robot called the YuMi, launched in 2015, and the ABB Ability, a leading digital solution introduced in 2017 that connects customers with the industrial Internet of Things.
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