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The Future of Automation: a Conversation with Rick Brookshire

The robotics technology required for automation, once prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to most, has become more affordable and easier to use in recent years. Many companies now use robotics to improve productivity throughout their automation processes—and many more will likely do so in the near future.

We sat down with Rick Brookshire, Director of Product Development for Epson Robots, to get his perspective on current trends and long-term possibilities in a rapidly changing industry.

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What do you see as current trends in the robotics industry?

Rick: There have been a lot of technological improvements to both the ease-of-use and performance of robots in recent years. At Epson, we offer integrated vision system and force guidance, enabling robots to perform more applications that were previously considered not feasible, while also reducing total development time. This allows manufacturers to perform high precision applications that were previously impossible.

Another example is Epson’s new IntelliFlex Feeding System. In order to feed parts, customers today must purchase the robot, vision system, and flexible feeder separately. Development time for all components can take weeks. If something goes wrong, a manufacturer needs to call each component’s support department individually.

The IntelliFlex Feeding System includes the robot, vision system, flexible feeder, and software. All components work together in the same development environment, Epson RC+. That drastically reduces the development and set up time compared to alternatives in the market.

What about collaborative robots? Will this trend continue in the future?

Rick: “Collaborative robots” is a buzzword right now. Collaborative robots can be a good choice when humans need to work side by side with robots.  However, there are other operations where manufacturers try to force-fit collaborative robots and then get frustrated with poor results, such as slow performance. Rather than trying to implement collaborative robots in every application, manufacturers need to, first and foremost, consider the application requirements. Those requirements will then determine if the right robot is collaborative or industrial.(SCARA, 6-Axis, Delta etc.)

What role does AI play in automation today and in the future?

Rick:  It is easy for customers and vendors to jump in headfirst with AI and try to use AI for everything. It’s important to take baby steps, and then walk before we run. We need to have the robots adjust and learn based on using the AI.  We are now applying simple AI to Epson products, such as our flexible feeder product, IntelliFlex Feeding System.

What are your predictions for the future of automation?

Rick: What do they say: “better, faster, cheaper?” There’s a lot of truth to this statement when it comes to automation. We are continuously making robots faster and easier to use with fully integrated solutions.

I compare robots and automation to the telephone. Today, a five-year-old can call Grandma without any help. She simply says, “Call Grandma.” Thirty years ago, a five-year-old couldn’t do it. They didn’t know the number and couldn’t dial the numbers correctly. But now, the telephone is super easy for people to use. Robots need to move in the same direction as the phone.

What do you think needs to happen on the development side to make robots easier to use?

Rick: We need to get to the point where robot programs are no longer required. Manufacturers need to be able to configure the application for their processes. We’re headed in that direction, but we still have a long way to go, as an industry.

What features are robot vendors adding that make it easier to program?

Rick: To make programming easier, it should be simplified to the point that customers can just go through a wizard to set up the robot instead of writing custom code. Our new product, IntelliFlex, generates code templates. Customers merely fill in the templates to customize the application.

What are your thoughts on where automation is headed in the future?

Rick: Speed is still a top priority for customers. They want a faster throughput in their factories so they can build more parts or products per minute, which increases revenue. While we have made tremendous strides in terms of speed, we are constantly working to build faster robots.

Learn more about using automation and what components you need to improve productivity and increase revenue.

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