Since producing the world’s first commercial, microprocessor-controlled robot IRB 6 in 1974, ABB has led the development of industrial robotics. More than 500,000 ABB robot applications have been installed across the world, and not just in car plants where they are now ubiquitous in every kind of production facility. Of course the robot you see depends entirely on the instructions it receives. Thus, ABB focuses heavily on digitalisation in this article, which is applicable to industrial automation as well as automation across multiple businesses and segments. Here too, ABB is the pioneer, enabling the digitalisation of automation for its customers.
COVID-19 threw a metaphorical spanner into the works for less prepared manufacturing enterprises. At the same time, it has been a big stimulus to automation and robotics. During the pandemic, ABB has been able to help its customers by remotely monitoring their robots, leading them through the use of tools like Wizard remote access and RobotStudio® offline programming software. As Arno Strotgen, Group SVP and Head of Customer Service and Digital Platform at ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation says: “During the pandemic the need for digitalisation has grown even more. Our digital tools have helped our customers when it became difficult to have engineers on-site due to lockdowns and social distancing requirements”.
The power of partnership
Today's ABB started life as a merger and has grown through collaboration, and collaboration remains central to its strategy. “We have to acknowledge that we cannot be experts in all fields and that the partnerships we have with other companies are crucial”, says Strotgen. “We have strategic partnerships with some of the leading technology companies such as Microsoft. By combining Microsoft’s Azure intelligent cloud with ABB’s deep domain expertise and innovation in manufacturing, we deliver end-to-end digital solutions such as ABB Ability Connected Services, which currently enables more than 1,000 customers to connect their robots to our cloud, helping them to improve their uptime and optimise their businesses.” Where innovation and startups are concerned, a great example is the 'External Innovation Challenge' that ABB Robotics is currently running, working with startups and technology companies on the topic of Mobility, Intuitive Interfaces and Digitalization. The ABB team received almost 100 applications (from 29 countries), out of which discussions were held with 45 companies, 11 of which were chosen to develop proofs of concept and evaluations.
To serve its customers in more than 45 countries, giving all of them the same level of support, ABB has invested heavily in its digital processes landscape. “We have digital processes from start to end. For sales and field service management we mainly use Salesforce. This allows us to have a 360-degree view of our customers and to put them in the centre of all we do. From service case management to field service planning & execution to seamless customer interactions - with Salesforce we've been able to digitalise our processes, gain more control and transparency over the customer journey, and respond quicker to customer requests and preferences”. ABB recognises that innovation is stronger when collaborating with partners and customers. The Robotics and Discrete Automation business recently joined the Open Manufacturing Platform, a consortium driving innovation across manufacturing community and value chain, he adds.
When Brave Control Solutions became the first Canadian company to win an ABB Value Provider Solution Award (for developing a new process that introduces more customisation and flexibility into the construction industry) it underlined how ABB's systems integrator partners can help to provide sector expertise, says Strotgen. “We aim to couple their know-how with our products and support to offer customers top-class solutions”.
The line between the commercial and academic worlds is blurring, and ABB works with several universities and R&D institutions around the world on new applications for its technology. A good example is ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. ABB is part of ETH’s “Robot X” programme, which aims to train new talent and develop future robotic technologies for different industries. ABB has already been working with ETH to develop robotic fabrication solutions for architecture and construction, which has led to a joint project between ABB, ETH and Schindler Lifts to develop an AI-enabled robotic system for building lift shafts.
Sharing knowledge among 1,600 service professionals is ciritcal to adding value to our customers and ABB’s long-standing relationship with Empolis, delivers advanced knowledge management systems powered by AI. “With this tool, our employees always have the newest service documents at hand and find the right case solution step-by-step, via guided troubleshooting”, says Strotgen.” This not only applies to our remote service, field service and support operations, but also to our customers as self service. Our primary benefit, however, is that our overall resolution time for service cases has dropped substantially, thus, improving customer satisfaction”. “The platform is also valuable in training new service technicians”, he adds. In another partnership venture, this time into the fast-developing field of augmented reality (AR), ABB is running a pilot in collaboration with Techsee, a company that specialises in computer vision, AI, and AR, with the aim of giving remote support to its customers. “By simply sending our customers an SMS, we establish a secure connection to support them remotely with augmented reality: this was very helpful in the pandemic. When we couldn't physically visit them, we could establish a quick connection with them and then help them resolve their issues in a truly smart way”.
ABB Robotics: an open door to the future
It will be noted that some of the examples of collaborative innovation we have seen are found in the construction industry. This sector has been slower than many to embrace automation, but now due to conditions caused by the pandemic, climate change, and population shifts, it is catching up fast, Arno Strotgen believes. The pressure for more sustainable, carbon-neutral, and affordable housing is driving this change and ABB is keen to develop the solutions the construction industry needs.
There are several ways in which robotics is quietly revolutionising construction. Apart from helping with the chronic problem of skill shortages it can increase productivity and bring new tech skills. Modular construction and other examples of off-site fabrication bring huge cost and time benefits, and at the same time speed up the introduction of new materials, and technologies such as 3D printing. Reducing the numbers of workers on-site and automating some of the more risky operations will help solve that persistent bugbear of the industry – worker safety.
Though automation opportunities are apparent in almost every business today, when invited to suggest which markets are likely to benefit most, Arno Strotgen suggests five potential targets:
New applications such as electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing and an expanded offering in machine automation. Track systems, machine-centric robotics, and vision are high growth areas.
- Increased complexity of manufacturing. The growth of e-commerce is creating increased complexity in logistics, for example, driving investment in intralogistics automation systems (integrating the processes that occur within a company during product handling). ABB is uniquely positioned to support both end-customers and integration partners in the logistics industry with strong knowledge of applications, modular solutions, and the widest service and support network.
- Customer segments with limited or no robotics and automation know-how. SMEs, healthcare, and of course construction (see above) are all examples.
- Cobots (collaborative robots that work alongside people) offer substantial scope for growth due to their ease of use and utility. They are especially attractive for small to medium enterprises.
- As data management delivers insights that improve performance, productivity, and reliability (and, for some industries, traceability), customers' reliance on digital services will continue to grow exponentially.
Readers will not find it hard to add to this list! ABB's strategy is to be prepared for these market openings while anticipating others. “We plan to accelerate in existing segments like automotive, drive new automation solutions like machine-centric robotics and flexible manufacturing, and leverage our existing expertise within under-served segments like logistics and healthcare that generate pull-through for robots. Investing and innovating in robotics for the service sector is a key element of our growth strategy, and our solutions will be indispensable to these new customers. We are offering modular and scalable solutions that provide them with a proven performance they can apply globally”.
So, ABB is expanding its portfolio of products (e.g. track systems, cobots), solutions (e.g. machine-centric robotics), application cells and smart systems (e.g. 3D Quality Inspection). At the same time, it is placing its software and digital portfolio front and centre of its future strategy. “We already monitor more than 9,000 installed robots remotely, and are constantly adding new digital services to our digital ecosystem.” He also points, to ABB's flexible and digital robot controller family - OmniCoreTM, best-in-class when it comes to motion control and path accuracy, while virtual realisation through technologies such as Digital Twin will continue to improve commissioning time. ABB can enable its customers to create a digital twin of their operations. “The RobotStudio® offline programming tool allows users to model, test, and refine a robot or robot cell in an offline environment. This can help to greatly reduce the time associated with designing, installing, and testing a robot in a live production environment. Another example is our PickMaster® Twin software, which can be used to help model, test, and commission robotic picking and packing lines”.
Robotics and digital transformation
When moving forward into robotic automation, ABB can help companies to simplify each stage, from design and programming to operation and maintenance. “We have the biggest service network of any robot supplier, together with the ability to remotely monitor the performance of our customers’ robots in order to help identify problems before they escalate. We will work with the customer and go step by step through their requirements, identifying the best way to introduce digitalisation to their operation. This can include working with multiple stakeholders to gain a fully rounded understanding of their business, what they want to achieve and how to put a structure in place that will enable their aims to be met.”
Companies can choose where they start their transformation. “We have solutions throughout the value chain. We support our customers with an ecosystem of software tools along their automation journey starting from commissioning and engineering, through to operations, maintenance, and service. We make digitalisation people-friendly, for example with the collaborative robots we spoke of earlier – you need a solution that is scalable, while easy enough for everyone to use.” This includes regularly revisiting the scheme once it is up and running to get feedback and identify any additional areas for improvement. Workers might request a simplified human-machine interface (HMI), or need training to sharpen their skills on areas such as robot programming. It's also important, he says, to include the people who use the technology at the design stage. “Workers can often introduce short cuts into processes that weren’t originally foreseen when the production line was built. These could be useful to know about when designing a digitalised solution.”
In January 2021 ABB carried out a survey of 1,650 businesses. 85% of these confirmed that the pandemic was game-changing for their business and industry. The same percentage already planned to introduce robotics, or increase their use, over the next decade: the pandemic only served to accelerate their investment plans. “We are much more than a robot company”. Arno Strotgen concludes. “We are a technology leader and have pioneered automation and digitalisation. We help customers of all sizes increase their productivity, quality & consistency, through enhanced flexibility and simplification of their processes. At ABB Robotics, we aren’t just witnessing this transformation, we’re leading from the front. While robots remain at the heart of our offering, today we provide everything from individual robots to application cells and smart systems. We also offer the benchmark in robot software and the industry’s broadest service offering – all connected in a digital ecosystem to create enhanced value for our customers. We understand what customers are doing with robots and can help them do it better”!
SMEs – yes, you can automate successfully!
The concept of a digital factory can be daunting. ABB's research shows that perceived complexity is a big issue of concern for SMEs in particular. ABB is tackling this with its latest generations of cobots and Wizard easy programming software, aiming to make cobots easy to deploy and use for companies that have little or no experience in programming or operating robots. These are examples of how companies can take steps to build confidence and experience in automation by starting small and tackling the easiest challenges first. Once they have gained experience, they can then move up to the next levels of automation to tackle more difficult tasks.
ABB's approach is to guide its customers wherever they are in the journey of digitalisation and whatever it means to them. Digitalisation does not mean having to throw out everything you already have – instead, it is about finding the best ways to use new technology to augment what you already have, identifying areas for improvement and finding ways to solve them. The digital factory is flexible and means different things for different people and companies. A digital solution needs to range from digitalising and synchronising single robots to having the complete view and dashboard.
A good example of how ABB technology can be used by a small manufacturer to open new possibilities is DB Shoes in the UK. Established in 1840, the company is using two ABB robots as part of its shoe manufacturing operation. Using the robots has given the company the flexibility to expand its offering to make new styles of shoes and handle new designs in the future.
Arno Strotgen, SVP, and Head of Customer Service and Digital Platform at ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation, says:
- We see simplification as a very important part of the digital journey
- Simplification is making robots easier to install, program and operate.
- Simplification in a digital factory is about making robots easier to install, program, and operate. If robots are simple and intuitive to use, for new users as well as experienced users, we can offset talent shortages. This is particularly beneficial for SMEs, which often lack integration and engineering resources. They will benefit greatly from the scalability of robotics, grow with it and use the flexibility of automation to adapt quickly to changing markets.
- We can manage increased automation complexity with intuitive tools and offering ease of programming that removes key entry barriers to new users.
- Examples include lead through programming on our YuMi®, GoFaTM, and SWIFTITM cobots; Wizard easy programming on our cobots and IRB1100 industrial robot, that enables users to program a robot using pre-programmed block-based programming, enabling even complete novices to use a robot.
Our RobotStudio® programming software also allows robot installations to be created, tested, and simulated in an offline environment, taking the time, cost and disruption out of installing and commissioning a robot or robot cell on the factory floor. By using augmented reality one can even visualize the robot solutions in the real-life production environment as a hologram.”
How robotics is transforming the construction industry
ABB robots are being used by a number of companies worldwide that produce modular prefabricated buildings and also 3D structures for building projects. In both cases, our robots are used in conjunction with digital design software to build exactly what the customer wants, enabling a true design for manufacture approach where what you see is exactly what you get. This approach will be increasingly vital in the future to transforming the possibilities for what can be built, producing mass-customised, more environmentally friendly structures at mass production prices whilst also reducing waste and maximizing profitability.
RobotStudio® offline programming and simulation software is a very useful tool for helping customers to see how they can use robots to optimize their production processes. It can be used to model a customer’s process to develop the best solution for their requirements, saving time and cost and reducing commissioning and troubleshooting.
Just a few examples:
Intelligent City, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, has become an expert in off-site construction of timber-built modules that can be connected to produce buildings up to 18 stories high. On the shop floor, ABB’s robots are used to process, handle and assemble large sections of timber in the prefabrication production line. Three robotic systems are used, including several robots integrated with tracks. Operating in cells, the robots produce timber components according to designs created in Intelligent City’s Platforms for Life (P4L) design software, enabling customized structures to be built according to specific customer requirements.
ABB’s RobotStudio® offline programming software is used with Intelligent City’s P4L software to plan tasks and movements for the ABB robots. Every component gets its own file and can be simulated and executed directly.
Key benefits of using the robots include better production efficiency, a 38% improvement in project delivery times, and a 33% reduction in the cost of producing a modular home. Wastage has also been significantly reduced as the robots can be used to optimize the production process to minimize off-cuts.
Also in Canada,Brave Control is helping companies in the construction industry to set up modular fabrication production lines. In 2021 Brave won the ABB Value Provider Solution Award. The company came up with CAD to Path software specifically for the construction industry so that the manufacture of unique assemblies — a chassis for hotel rooms, mass timber floors, panel walls, plumbing — can be adjusted depending on the constructor’s different architectural and engineering requirements.
House of Design is an ABB Robotics Integration company and robotics value provider. It recently worked with Autovol on a fully operational and multi-unit housing factory. The factory floor is approximately 400,000 square feet, with an adjoining office space of 30,000 square feet where multiple extremely high-quality living units are produced each day.