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The Industrial Robot Revolution

Stand-alone and embedded industrial robots are taking their place alongside humans

By Sandra Gittlen, Network World
February 20, 2012 06:09 AM ET

Network World - One small step for man, a giant leap for robot-kind.

NASA recently launched Curiosity, the newest rover to explore Mars. Curiosity is a supercharged robot that can collect, analyze and transmit data about the experience on the Red Planet using environmental sensors, radiation monitors, chemistry instruments and more.

And although the project's price tag - $2.5 billion - might seem staggering, it's a clear statement to the world that the future is in robotics. A message that is not lost here on Earth.

RELATED: 11 cool robots you may not have heard of

According to the International Federation for Robotics (IFR), robots "will be a major driver for global job creation over the next five years." A study conducted by global research firm Metra Martech, released in November, credited the 1 million industrial robots currently in operation with being directly responsible for the creation of close to 3 million jobs.

Metra Martech researchers also found that a cross-section of industries, including consumer electronics, food, solar and wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing plan to tap into the benefits robotics offer. (Watch a slideshow version of this story.)

For instance, robots can be used in capacities that would be unsafe for humans, that would not be economically viable in a high-wage economy; and that would be impossible for humans, according to the report.

In sectors such as electronics, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals, robots provide the required quality, precision, speed and traceability that cannot be achieved manually, the study found.

Real, radical robots

Frank Tobe, owner and publisher of "The Robot Report" has observed growing interest in robotics around the globe and across vertical markets. "Robots appeal to an array of businesses, including agricultural, packaging and distribution, and medical," he says.

He believes a dramatic shift in how robots are made and perceived has sparked their broad acceptance. "People used to think of robots as expensive, monstrous, dangerous, clunky machines that had to have a cage around them. Today's robots are nothing like that - they are cheaper, lighter, agile, and equipped with sensors to make them safer so they can work alongside humans," he says.

For instance, robots now handle accuracy-dependent tasks such as polishing and sanding on consumer device assembly lines and automatically fill orders at fast-food chains.

"Some are even embedded into other form factors such as automobiles so they are essentially transparent." He points to the robotics used to power self-park features in newer cars as an example.

As robots themselves evolve, so do their controllers. Tobe predicts that tablets, smartphones and other handhelds will become a common mechanism for training and manipulating robots.

He also believes that although nowadays robotics technology is incredibly proprietary, it will soon open up. "As the marketplace broadens, robotic operating systems will become more open source and more capable," Tobe says.

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