Automation is sweeping the continent. “More robots are being sold in North America than ever before,” says Jeff Burnstein, President of Robotic Industries Association (RIA).
“The technology is more capable, more reliable, less costly, easier to use than ever before. We are growing at double digits annually in sales right now. This is the golden age of robotics – not just in the US but around the world.”
Applications for robots are increasing rapidly, fueling the spread of the technology into new industries. “Historically the automotive industry accounts for about 50% of the robot sales in the US,” Mr. Burnstein reports. “But now we are seeing an expansion of the use of the technology in small to medium sized companies. They are driven by the need to compete globally and they are utilizing robots in order to compete and they are doing it with great success.”
One type of new technology driving increased use is collaborative robotics, which allows robots to safely work alongside humans. This ability will open many new doors for industrial robots that were traditionally off limits, such as final assembly operations. “There is a lot more assembly work that can be done with this new class of collaborative robots because those tasks are done side by side with people, and now you can put a robot in the loop there.” Collaborative robots can also be programmed much more easily than traditional industrial robots, making their use more manageable for smaller scale operations. “In a period of an hour or two you can take it out of the box and have it up and running.”
Robotic Industries Association (RIA) is helping to push the industry forward and ensure that standards are upheld as robots become increasingly prevalent. Founded in 1974, the association is the only trade group in North America organized specifically to serve the robotics industry. “The association formed and started to flourish in the late 70s and early 80s when people were predicting [robotics] would be the next industrial revolution,” Mr. Burnstein explains. Industry leader Joseph Engelberger, known as the Father of Robotics, helped launch the organization in order to boost the burgeoning industry. “He brought together competitors into the same room. These were people who competed in the marketplace and he helped convince them there was a need for a trade association to promote the industry as a whole.”
Today, the trade group operates under the umbrella association A3 (Association for Advancing Automation) along with AIA (Advancing Vision + Imaging) and MCMA (Motion Control & Motor Association). Together, these associations represent approximately 900 automation manufacturers, component suppliers, system integrators, end users, research groups and consulting firms around the world. As the global advocate for the benefits of automation, A3 and its daughter associations promote automation technologies and ideas that transform the way business is done.
RIA alone currently represents over 375 industry members, both on the supplier and user sides. Member benefits are numerous. For starters, the association provides ongoing educational opportunities, from conferences to webinar series. One popular current video series, Why I Automate, shares firsthand accounts of how automation has helped small businesses. “Companies talk about the advantages of automating, what it means to them, how it has safeguarded their people, created better jobs, and allowed them to win business that they never would have won before.” In addition to teaching how robotics can save jobs and keep manufacturing in North America, RIA also educates on the latest industry trends. Currently, collaborative robotics is garnering a lot of attention and the association is busy educating members and potential users how to utilize this exciting new technology.
RIA’s flagship event, Automate Show & Conference, is a tradeshow and conference held every two years and co-hosted by AIA and MCMA. The event includes numerous exhibits as well as in-depth conference sessions designed to help companies more successfully apply robotics and related technologies. The associations also co-sponsor the A3 Business Forum, the world’s leading annual networking event for robotics, vision & imaging, motors, and motion control professionals. In addition, RIA hosts the annual National Robot Safety Conference and International Collaborative Robots Workshop.
RIA also provides important industry certification. The association’s Certified Robot Integrator Program benchmarks robot integrators against industry best practices, allowing robot users to evaluate potential service providers. To earn this rigorous certification, robot integrators undergo an in-depth process including on-site auditing, safety training, hands-on testing of key personnel, and more. The need for the industry certification became evident soon after the recession took hold. “This is a program that really came to prominence right after the downturn,” Mr. Burnstein recalls. “In the 2009 downturn a lot of companies laid people off and a lot of individuals who had never really done integration set up integration companies and maybe they weren’t experienced in how difficult it was to successfully apply a product, but they were able to win business just based on price competition. And price alone really isn’t the issue; it is the overall cost of getting a system up and running successfully.”
This influx of inexperienced workers began to tarnish the industry’s reputation when they failed to execute projects successfully. “Jobs weren’t going well. It gave the industry a black eye. We realized that there was a way to allow integrators to demonstrate their skills and experience by comparing themselves against industry best practices.” Now, users have a reliable means to judge the level of experience and skill of robot integrators. “[If the] integrator has been certified by the RIA it means that they are adhering to best practices in the industry. It provides a level of comfort to know that somebody has audited this company against best practices.”
RIA remains at the forefront of overcoming industry challenges. A number one goal moving forward is to maintain safety throughout the industry. “Historically we have been very proud of the safety record of the industrial robot,” Mr. Burnstein remarks. But, as collaborative robots come onto the scene – interacting with people at a level that industrial robots never have before – safety standards and practices must be updated to fit new risks. “We are developing standards with others around the world as part of the International Standards Organization to try and put some standards around this new category of robots. We want to make sure that safety remains job one. That is an overarching challenge.”
RIA will also be continuing its efforts to educate people on the positive benefits of automation, particularly the fact that robots can help keep manufacturing jobs in North America. “We are always working on this issue of convincing people that robots actually save and create jobs. That is a topic that we talk about every day.”
As robotics technology continues to increase, so will the presence of robots. “I see the use of robots continuing to grow,” Mr. Burnstein predicts. “New applications are developing in all industries and in companies of all sizes.” He also believes that there will be a significant increase in the use of mobile robotics. Mobile robots are already being used to deliver items quickly and efficiently in hospitals, hotels, and warehouses, but this technology has yet to reach its full potential. “It is going to become much more prominent. We are going to see more and more of it.”
As new robotics applications come onto the scene, RIA is ready to help users successfully adopt the latest, leading edge technology while simultaneously supporting suppliers. From the industry’s infancy in the late 1970s, to the remarkable breakthroughs seen today, the association is leading the way into a world where science fiction has become reality.