The future of testing: automation and collaborative robots
As industrial organisations seek to fully embrace digital transformation and the implementation of data-driven analytics along the entire industrial value chain, one major trend has emerged: the application of robots in device testing.
With manufacturers racing towards digitalisation to limit the impact of COVID-19 on global supply chains, some sources have even claimed that the pandemic could lead to a 75.7% acceleration in robot adoption in the manufacturing industry.
Digital transformation in manufacturing depends on collaborative robot (cobots), but their introduction into testing is a specialised task which requires domain understanding of robots as well as verification and validation processes.
The testing process in manufacturing can be multi-faceted, requiring many actions to be completed simultaneously to generate the required data. As the number of actions increase, so does the complexity of the task. This can lead to difficulties in maintaining the pace and accuracy of testing while doing it manually. This has a knock-on effect on productivity and, ultimately, the bottom line.
The adoption of technologies like robotics can vastly improve the efficiency and reliability of both product and system testing. And, by automating certain functions, more time is allowed for human operators to interpret and analyse the results.
The new era of robotics: cobots
Robots are not one size fits all. Several types can be considered for commercial applications, with capabilities that are suited to wildly different tasks. These are broadly classified as: -
- Service robots: Assistant robots to humans in various routine tasks. Generally, these have a defined scope and dedicated functionality such as packaging, inspection, or a home assistant.
- Custom robots: Specific mechatronic designs intended to fulfil dedicated tasks, like push/pull systems.
- Industrial robots: Specialised service robots that are faster, performance-oriented and can be used as stand-alone or clustered units, such as a manufacturing line.
- Collaborative robots (cobots): Smaller robots, capable of working in a collaborative environment alongside human operators.
With several options of robots available, it raises the question: which one should be chosen for device testing? The highly specialised nature of service of custom robots means they lack the flexibility required for testing environments. Similarly, industrial robots are better suited for tasks way beyond human capabilities.
Cobots are therefore the clear choice. They offer a host of advantages that make them ideal for working alongside human operators – they are lightweight, smaller in size and energy-efficient. By definition, they are collaborative, enabled with constructional and operational mechanisms to qualify as a safe companion for co-working in the same time and space as human operators. Inherent safety features, such as limitations to their speed and force or virtual safety limits, all make them ideal for a lab set up. In comparison, other forms of robots do not feature such precautions, which means they could pose a safety threat to human operators and other equipment.
The roadmap to cobot-isation
Cobots are enhanced with visual, sound, and sensor capabilities for performing end-to-end testing from actuation, providing them with a wide scope of applications in testing processes: -
- Functional testing: Testing physical, action-based features of a device or module
- Performance testing: Consistent and rigorous testing of device inputs and responses
- User testing: Imitation of maximum possible user actions to cover device under test (DUT) functionality
- System testing: Testing in a tough or hazardous environment for end usage
- Assisted testing: Robot assisting humans to perform repetitive tasks, so humans can focus on test evolution
Cobots are already being used in some industries. In Germany scientists working for Fraunhofer IPA have developed a mobile cobot for Bosch which tests the endurance of home appliances like dishwashers, repeatedly loading and unloading them until they wear out. Employees are relieved of a highly repetitive task and can rely on a standardised and controlled 24-hour operation – in turn, they can channel their own resource into more nuanced tasks.
Meanwhile, Spanish automotive industry supplier Continental, has been using cobots to enhance its production lines. In 2016, the company introduced numerous collaborative robots to automate the manufacture and handling of printed circuit boards. Doing so brought down changeover times by 50%, dropping from 40 when done manually to 20 minutes – allowing that time to be better used elsewhere.
Organisations need to consider several factors before implementing cobots into testing processes. First is the great choice of models – a thorough understanding of the device going under test conditions is needed to select the type of robot, sensors, and the end-effector (robot hand or finger) that will be required during testing.
Once the selection is made, employees must be properly trained to understand how to operate the cobot. Following this, organisations must trial run the operation – testing for timing and verification effectiveness. Without proper trialling or training, there is a potential risk of the safety of staff or production delays as staff cannot properly operate the equipment. As well, without actually trialling the process, there is no way of knowing if it works correctly – there is no opportunity to reassess designs or recalibrate and customise if needed.
With these steps done, only then should production deployment begin. However, this isn’t a one-off assessment – organisations should continue scalability analysis and value monitoring, producing an upgrade and maintenance strategy in case of any unforeseen issues that arise.
A bright future for cobots
Wide-ranging uses of cobots in end-to-end device testing, have already been found, but as the technology advances we can expect these uses to continue to expand. The potential for cobots to assist in digital transformation is huge, especially in industries such as aerospace, healthcare, industrial automation, and consumer products, retail, and distribution (CPRD).
By design, cobots encourage closer working with humans, so it’s not just about taking some tasks out of the hands of employees – it’s about considering how employee’ time can be freed up to create more value in the industrial chain while maximising automation, sustainability and maintaining a safe collaborative testing environment.
Siemens: Providing the First Industrial 5G Router
Across a number of industry sectors, there’s a growing need for both local wireless connectivity and remote access to machines and plants. In both of these cases, communication is, more often than not, over a long distance. Public wireless data networks can be used to enable this connectivity, both nationally and internationally, which makes the new 5G network mainframe an absolutely vital element of remote access and remote servicing solutions as we move into the interconnected age.
Siemens Enables 5G IIoT
The eagerly awaited Scalance MUM856-1, Siemens’ very first industrial 5G router, is officially available to organisations. The device has the ability to connect all local industrial applications to the public 5G, 4G (LTE), and 3G (UMTS) mobile wireless networks ─ allowing companies to embrace the long-awaited Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
The router can be used to remotely monitor and service plants, machines, as well as control elements and other industrial devices via a public 5G network ─ flexibly and with high data rates. Something that has been in incredibly high demand after being teased by the leading network providers for years.
Scalance MUM856-1 at a Glance
- Scalance MUM856-1 connects local industrial applications to public 5G, 4G, and 3G mobile wireless networks
- The router supports future-oriented applications such as remote access via public 5G networks or the connection of mobile devices such as automated guided vehicles in industry
- A robust version in IP65 housing for use outside the control cabinet
- Prototypes of Siemens 5G infrastructure for private networks already in use at several sites
“To ensure the powerful connection of Ethernet-based subnetworks and automation devices, the Scalance MUM856-1 supports Release 15 of the 5G standard. The device offers high bandwidths of up to 1000 Mbps for the downlink and up to 500 Mbps for the uplink – providing high data rates for data-intensive applications such as the remote implementation of firmware updates. Thanks to IPv6 support, the devices can also be implemented in modern communication networks.
Various security functions are included to monitor data traffic and protect against unauthorised access: for example, an integrated firewall and authentication of communication devices and encryption of data transmission via VPN. If there is no available 5G network, the device switches automatically to 4G or 3G networks. The first release version of the router has an EU radio license; other versions with different licenses are in preparation. With the Sinema Remote Connect management platform for VPN connections, users can access remote plants or machines easily and securely – even if they are integrated in other networks. The software also offers easy management and autoconfiguration of the devices,” Siemens said.
Preparing for a 5G-oriented Future
Siemens has announced that the new router can also be integrated into private 5G networks. This means that the Scalance MUM856-1 is, essentially, future-proofed when it comes to 5G adaptability; it supports future-oriented applications, including ‘mobile robots in manufacturing, autonomous vehicles in logistics or augmented reality applications for service technicians.’
And, for use on sites where conditions are a little harsher, Siemens has given the router robust IP65 housing ─ it’s “dust tight”, waterproof, and immersion-proofed.
The first release version of the router has an EU radio license; other versions with different licenses are in preparation. “With the Sinema Remote Connect management platform for VPN connections, users can access remote plants or machines easily and securely – even if they are integrated in other networks. The software also offers easy management and auto-configuration of the devices,” Siemens added.