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MemberSeptember 15, 2021 at 2:00 am
Robot programming accounts for a significant portion of the overall cost of robot adoption and has traditionally required programmers trained in frameworks specific to each robot manufacturer.
This is changing, with rapid developments in model-based approaches, the ‘appification’ of robot programming, and demonstration teaching methods. We look at recent trends in robot programming and the implications for robot adoption and skills requirements.
Model-based development – already well-established in software engineering and widely used in manufacturing sectors such as automotive and avionics- is now increasingly adopted in robotics. One model-based approach encapsulates the code that describes specific attributes and actions of the robot in blocks. Blocks can describe the physical structure of the robot, the activities or ‘skills’ it should perform, its components such as sensors and actuators, as well as the interface between the robot program and other controllers such as actuators or other machines. These blocks can then be combined in different ways to create new programs, without writing each line of code from scratch. Robots can be programmed faster, and by generalist engineers or, for simple applications, production operators. Experts estimate that model-based programming through graphical user interfaces aimed at non-programmers can save up to 75% of installation time and cost.
Model-based development approaches are offered by a number of robot manufacturers for their robot fleets. There are also start-ups providing libraries of models with easy-to-use application-building interfaces that do not require programming skills. One example is drag&bot, a spin-off of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute. The company provides a graphical user interface through which peripherals such as cameras, actuators such as grippers and programmable line controllers from a range of manufacturers can be integrated with different robots. Drag&bot also provides models for common functions such as palletizing, and support in customizing more complex applications such as pick-and-place, using existing models.
Many companies have installed robots from different manufacturers and want to be able to reuse an application developed for one robot operating system on a robot from a different manufacturer. This has traditionally required significant reprogramming. A number of initiatives are focused on enabling greater reusability of model-based programs. This reduces the resources needed to make specific blocks of code usable on a new robot and in turn lowers the overall implementation cost and increases the economic viability of automating new processes. Traditionally, industrial robots have been used to automate processes that remain constant across large numbers of robots over time – for example welding and cutting parts in automotive manufacturing. However, as manufacturers come under increasing pressure to adapt production to smaller runs of a larger variety of products (high-mix/low-volume), the ability to cost-effectively adapt existing applications and automate new processes becomes a competitive advantage.
The ROS-Industrial Consortium aims to support reusability by building on the open-source framework ROS (Robot Operating System) – a collection of tools, libraries, and conventions for robot programming heavily used by robot developers but not yet widely accepted for use in commercial applications, particularly for industrial robots as there are still concerns regarding support for the strict real-time requirements that are a feature of most industrial robot applications, functional safety and liability. ROS 2, a major revision of the ROS programming framework, aims to address these issues, though the required software libraries are still in development. ROS-Industrial Consortium members, which include a number of industrial robot manufacturers such as ABB, Yaskawa and Universal Robots, contribute code or programming frameworks, which enable re-use of specific blocks of existing proprietary code. The ROS-Industrial repository includes interfaces for common industrial manipulators, grippers, sensors, and device networks as well as software libraries for tasks such as automatic 2D/3D sensor calibration and process