Flexible Circuits in Robotics

Robotics is used now in every industry from military, industrial, aviation, automotive, consumer and medical device, and electronics with many applications in these markets utilizing flexible circuit technology.

Robots have been around for over 50 years.  The first practical application for a robot in manufacturing was in 1962 on a General Motors automotive assembly line.  The early versions of robots were limited in the “intelligence” and complexity of tasks, however, due to the general limit of high speed computing power and sensing technology.  They were typically utilized for very specific application functions such as where a part in exact position A was picked up and transferred to position B. This is opposed to today’s robots being capable of universal use.

Today the robotics industry is growing at a near exponential rate.  BCG (Boston Consulting Group) has projected that the market for robots will grow to 87 billion in 2025.  That figure is considered very conservative by a number of other consulting groups.  This figure does not include self driving vehicles.

Today’s robots are smarter, lighter and far less expensive than their predecessors of a couple of decades ago.  Robots in the past required expensive programming to make any changes or upgrades.  The robots were truly “dumb” in that they could not react or modify motions to changing circumstances.  Today’s robots have the ability to make decisions.   They can learn new tasks without programming.  They use vision systems to seek and find.  They use sophisticated sensing mechanisms to identify and ‘touch’.

Robotics was primarily used in the industrial sector starting in the early 60’s on assembly lines for repetitive tasks as a cost savings measure. Today the use of robots has expanded to introduce superb precision, to drive staggering output of volume, and to provide quality and reliability advancement with their consistent methods of process control.

Examples of today’s robotics:

Self Driving Vehicles:   A self driving vehicle is technically a robot.  While there have been recent set-backs, self-driving cars have had millions of miles of real road tests with great results. Self-driving vehicles have advanced the machine intelligence to a near human capability.  The artificial intelligence developed within the automotive area here has carried over to many other applications, as well.  Self-driving vehicles (including over the road trucks) are expected to make a major impact on society in the near future.

Fast Food/ Retail:  Robots are starting to appear in restaurants doing food preparation.  This includes flipping and turning food, monitoring quality with visual inspection, and measuring food temperature.

Agriculture: Some of the tasks robots are currently performing include picking fruit, automating harvesting, milking cows, performing crop analysis, sorting/packing goods, and managing weed control.

Healthcare:  Robots are currently being used in surgery, patient transport, drug dispensing and certainly in fine assembly of miniature devices such as hearing aids and pacemakers.

Consumer: Home/building cleaning, personal assistance and entertainment are some of the common uses of robotics in the consumer market.

Warehousing:  Robots are now capable of performing the entire range of activities for warehousing, such as picking, packing and palletizing.   Amazon recently invested heavily in robot technology with the goal of fully automating its warehouses.

Military:  Unmanned aviation, ground, and underwater vehicles are used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, bomb detection and defusing, and weaponry.

Robotics reduce risks to human harm and they reduce human errors.  While there are many who fear that robots will cause high unemployment as traditional human work is replaced by robotics, there are many positive aspects to consider:

  • There are currently labor shortages in a number of industries including healthcare, transportation and manufacturing. There is a significant shortage of over-the-road drivers that is causing bottle necks in the transportation industry.  Self-driving trucks can replace or supplement human labor and relieve much of that shortage.  There is a critical shortage of skilled nurses. Robots can be used to perform some of more mundane tasks which frees up nurses for more valuable and impactful tasks and projects.
  • Robotics is actually proving to create jobs. As the automotive industry employed robots and reduced manufacturing costs, automotive sales increased – creating more jobs for humans.  Additionally the automation kept many operations competitive and being a victim of being outsourced overseas.  In fact, the improved productivity from robotics has allowed companies to restructure their supply chain and bring jobs back to the US (reshoring).  Source.
  • The robotics industry itself is creating jobs. It is one of the fastest growing industries and is creating jobs for scientists, engineers, programmers and technicians. Close to 15 million new jobs will be created in the U.S. over the next decade as a direct result of automation and artificial intelligence, equivalent to 10% of the workforce, according to estimates in a new report from Forrester Research, a market research company.  Source.

All Flex has been providing flexible circuit and heater solutions to the robotics industry for many years.  Our Maxiflex extended length circuits have been used in robotic applications in aviation, medical and factory floor manufacturing equipment.  As the demand for robotics continue to drive toward becoming lighter, smaller and more agile, flexible circuits will play a larger role by utilizing its connectivity features and eliminating connectors and heavy wires.