WHAT IS ROBOTICS?

by Peter Nikiforov, Mechanical Engineer

Image of Peter Nikiforov, Mechanical Engineer
Peter Nikiforov, Mechanical Engineer

WHAT DOES ROBOTICS ACTUALLY MEAN?

The word “robotics” can elicit images of humanoid robots replicating human behavior, but the term has a more general use in engineering. Modern robotics is an interdisciplinary field dealing with designing, building, and operating machines that automate labor. Robotic machines typically consist of moving parts, sensors, actuators, computers and often interact with people. As a result developing such machines requires an array of technical disciplines such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, system engineering, UI/UX and more.  

Robotic Vision System designed by SIGMADESIGN for High-Precision Automation
Robotic visions systems can perform tasks quickly, consistently and precisely. The vision system pictured here was designed and built by SIGMADESIGN to perform highly precise quality control.

WHY IS ROBOTICS IMPORTANT?

Once programmed, robots can be fast, consistent, and precise. In manufacturing, these characteristics are often leveraged to automate a repetitive, laborious, and challenging task. Designing products with manufacturing automation in mind gives engineers design freedom. A design that might otherwise be ruled out due to assembly complexities may be entirely viable and cost effective with robotic aid. Additionally, robots often assist in reducing cycle time. A process that takes a human operator several minutes to complete may only take a robot several seconds.

Image of complex printed circuit board. An example of a PCB that is best manufactured by a robotic system because of complexity.
Many printed circuit boards such as the one pictured here are too complex for human operators to produce. Robotic systems play an important role in manufacturing modern era products.

In addition to automating laborious and repetitive work that would otherwise be completed by humans, robots can also do things humans cannot, and therefore produce products that would otherwise not exist. For example, modern era complex printed circuit boards and increasingly miniaturized integrated circuits require many robotic systems to develop and manufacture them. These tasks simply could not be done by a human operator. Without robotics, devices such as the modern smart phones would not exist.

WHAT ARE THE LIMITATIONS OF ROBOTS?

Robots perform well in consistent predictable environments. Generally speaking the more variation a robot is designed to deal with the more sophisticated it must be. If a robot is exposed to an environment variable it isn’t designed to deal with, the results can be catastrophic. For instance, if a robot tasked with picking and placing a container full of toxic waste doesn’t have feedback regarding the containers location or orientation, the robot may inadvertently puncture the container and cause a spill if the container is not where the robot expects it to be (ex. Conveyor jam or toppled container). Extensive testing is required to vet any such unforeseen complications.

Specifically, how or when a robot may struggle can be hard to predict. A seemingly trivial task for a human can be impossible for a robot. Human beings are exceptional at dealing with variation. For instance, if a part doesn’t fit quite right, a human operator might give it a little jiggle or quickly inspect it for defects to overcome the issue. Designing and programming a robot with such adaptability can be expensive, complex, and time consuming. For this reason making a decision to use a robotic system often warrants a cost benefit analysis.

WHY USE SIGMADESIGN FOR THE DESIGN OF ROBOTIC SYSTEMS?

As mentioned before, developing and operating robots is an interdisciplinary engineering effort. Whether developing a robotic system or using existing robots to automate a process, having a broad range of expertise is essential. At SIGMADESIGN our electrical, mechanical, firmware and software engineers have extensive experience developing robotic systems from the ground up. In addition, our dedicated Systems Engineering group aids in architecting robotic systems and are experts in leveraging existing industrial robotics and controllers to meet our clients’ needs.