Ever since they first appeared back in 1952, industrial robots have been portrayed as being large, heavy, static, dangerous to humans, and capable of performing only repetitive, pre-programmed tasks. Although these characteristics generally still hold true, ongoing developments in microelectronics, sensors, networking and algorithms are setting the stage for a new era of semiautonomous robots.
Major changes are also being propelled by the convergence of two seemingly contradictory trends: growing product complexity and increasing demand for individualized solutions. The result has been a new focus on the concept of flexible manufacturing characterized by light-weight industrial robots that can be easily and economically re-deployed and which, above all, will be capable of safely working side-by-side with humans. As these new features evolve, they will open the door to the kinds of short-cycle, small-batch production envisioned in Germany’s concept of “Industrie 4.0” – otherwise known as the Industrial Internet – as well as taking the first steps on the evolutionary path to becoming autonomous assistants.