An example of robotics in manufacturing

What is robotics?

Robotics is a red hot topic for manufacturing and processing companies. The use of industrial robots for performing an ever-increasing range of programmable tasks is opening the door to major improvements across a huge range of enterprises and business sectors. 


What is a robot?
In the words of the British Robot Association, an industrial robot is:

"a re-programmable device designed to both manipulate and transport parts, tools, or specialised manufacturing implements through variable programmed motions for the performance of specific manufacturing tasks."


Manufacturers and processing enterprises of all sizes need to know about robotics and to understand how their businesses can benefit from the fast-growing opportunities for faster, better quality and lower cost ways of working.  


This guide gives an overview of:


The history of robotics

The term ‘robotics’ was first coined not by a scientist, but by celebrated sci-fi author Isaac Asimov in 1942. The writer’s vision was for a future where robots perform a huge range of tasks to help the human race. As we get deeper into the 21st century, the far-reaching value of robot assistance is becoming more and more of a reality.   

The guiding principles of effective robotics are machine handling and programmability. In the 1960s a robot called Shakey was developed in California’s Silicon Valley which included motors, cameras and sensors which gave it the ability to – shakily – perform a number of tasks and to move around obstacles. 

Robotic arms

At the same time, robot arms were being developed to carry out specific functions in manufacturing plants. While creative visions of robots centred on walking, talking machines which emulated human behaviours, the reality for manufacturing centred on finding practical improvements in industrial handling and production. As they developed from the 1960s onwards, robotic arms offered a powerful way of lifting and positioning components repetitively and reliably. 

General Motors are credited with using the first industrial robot arm in 1962. The following years saw new developments for articulated movements and grippers. By the end of the decade, robotic arms were being used in automotive plants for a growing range of assembly and welding tasks.

Programmable microchips for robots

Critically, robotic capabilities advanced in line with developments in programmable microchips. The digital technology which moved forward in the 1970s and 1980s allowed robots to undertake more and more digitally controlled tasks. Robotic arms were being developed with many more axes which allowed for more complex movements, run by increasingly sophisticated computer programmes. By the mid-1990s robots could be synchronised to work together, and to become still more important for large scale manufacturers.

Control systems too were being brought within reach of staff without high level programming skills. Touch screens enabled robots to be controlled by non-technical employees, helping robotic technology to be used in an increasing number of businesses.

Innovations in robotics

Innovations in robotics keep arriving from research-based academic organisations and innovative businesses. Mobile robots, for example, have moved on from systems guided by rails (often below the floor surface of a factory or warehouse) to autonomous systems guided by sensors and new developments in machine vision. The latest inspection systems too benefit from advances in camera vision, and robots increasingly offer flexible capabilities for items of different shapes and sizes in multiple aspects of logistics, assembly and precision manufacturing. 

Alongside advances in the mechanical design of robots, digital technology is also driving the robot world forward. While programmes are increasingly powerful, artificial intelligence (AI), fuelled by machine learning, is giving robots a further range of practical abilities which can be profitably deployed in any number of manufacturing situations. 


The uses of robotics

In the 1960s, only large corporations such as major automotive manufacturers could afford to implement early incarnations of robotic arms on assembly lines, such as General Motors’ innovative and original Unimate. For car and truck manufacturers, the ability of powerful hydraulic arms to lift heavy components with speed and accuracy contributed to a step forward in productivity and efficiency. In the automotive sector developments continue in assembly, part picking, welding and painting.    

Robots for handling, assembly and more

As robot capabilities increased, they could be used for a wider range of materials handling and precision work suitable for emerging industries where lifting heavy loads was less important than accurate assembly with smaller components, such as nuts, bolts and electronic components. 

Developments in assembly abilities have seen the roll-out of robotics to producers of consumer goods of all types, from furniture to white goods and computers. Advances in handling mean that robotics are profitably embraced in warehousing and logistics. Packaging processes also increasingly feature robots of various sizes and types, from feeding packing materials and products into a packing line, through to primary and secondary packaging processes, palletising and wrapping. 

Robotics for smaller businesses

As manufacturers offer an ever-increasing range of fully or semi-automated equipment, smaller businesses are able to benefit from using lower cost collaborative robots (cobots) which can easily be integrated into existing workflows. Such robots can be sourced in the same way as other ‘off the shelf’ industrial equipment, and have proved to be of value to a very broad spectrum of light industrial enterprises. 

Robots for pharmaceutical and food businesses

The pharmaceuticals sector is able to take advantage of increased robotic capabilities in testing, quality control and handling. Producers of processed foods follow a similar path, as well as using robotics for dosing, mixing and forming. Robotic handling capabilities extend to delicate foods such as whole eggs and fine pastry cases thanks to advances in gripper design and accurate controls.  

Robotics in healthcare

In healthcare, surgical operations are now sometimes carried out by a robot remotely controlled by surgeons, with infinite precision. A world away from heavy lifting capabilities, tiny robots or microbots, some the size of a single cell, are on the horizon for use in diagnosis and treatment. 

Robots in agriculture and defence 

In agriculture, automated robotic systems are being used for pruning, spraying and mowing as well as for pest control. The military are also using robots for critical operations such as bomb disposal, search and rescue and armed confrontation. Autonomous drones are being used for intelligence purposes, and are also used for armed raids on the enemy.

Robots in restaurants

In the hospitality sector, robots have made their debut in various restaurants to greet customers, take orders and deliver food to the table. 

The use of robotics has been driven by end users, robot manufacturers and academic institutions. There is no theoretical limit to the ways in which robotics can be used, and we will continue to see developments and investment across all spheres of activity.  


The advantages of robotics

in the earliest days of robotics, the advantages of being able to programme a machine to repeatedly perform a task were clear – less human effort, less time and fewer people were needed to get things done. Costs could go down, and profitability rise, following a similar course to the changes seen with industrial mechanisation.       


When General Motors first implemented robotics, the key productivity benefits were clear. A powerful, programmable robotic arm could lift a heavy component more quickly and more often than any process based on non-programmable machinery and human effort. 

What was true then remains true today. Robots are faster than humans, and can keep working without rest breaks, sickness or a limit on working hours. They are powerful and can handle heavy loads. They are also able to repeat tasks without getting bored and with consistent accuracy. 

Increased productivity is key to greater profitability, which is why the business world’s appetite for constantly improving robotics continues to grow. 


The accuracy of robotic automation results in a reduction in degraded, contaminated or otherwise unusable products. With advanced robotic inspection systems in place, the highest levels of quality control are achievable, although it in certain contexts it is still common practice to engage staff in human inspection to ensure that machine vision systems have not missed any flaws or issues. 


Flexibility in robotic systems is increasingly important to manufacturing, production and packaging businesses. The ability to handle different types and sizes of products is key to matching output to demand, and to avoiding the problem of having too many or too few items available. 


Digital controls can be used to dial throughput up or down, or to change size or type of item being produced. With advanced, connected systems (for example, from warehouse stock systems to production controls) output can be increased or decreased according to demand on a fully automated basis.     

Health and Safety

Robots can handle heavy and dangerous materials without the risk of injury to operators. To ensure that staff are safe, some robots need to operate in fenced off areas, and strict access procedures need to be followed. Other robots, such as single arm cobots on an assembly line, can operate safely side by side with human staff. Appropriate risk assessments and best practice guidelines will provide the right approach to take.

Staff benefits

At its best, robotics empowers staff by removing repetitive and dangerous tasks, and allows them to take on duties which are more fulfilling. With the right training, employees can be upskilled and qualified to undertake roles with greater responsibility and earn greater rewards. Where businesses are focussed on growth and staff development, investment in robotics can be hugely beneficial for employees, just as for shareholders.


The future of robots

The uses of robots have evolved exponentially since the first tentative steps of the 1950s and 1960s. The range of applications is developing all the time, and it’s difficult to place a limit on the ways in which robotics will be used in the future. AI, the use of advanced materials, and evolving consumer demand will continue to drive the evolution of robotics processes

The outlook for the future of robotics is that there will be:

  • More different types of robot
  • Robots can perform with greater flexibility
  • The ability to perform a greater range of tasks
  • Easier integration with existing systems
  • Lower costs

At the same time, robotics will help to protect businesses from increasing labour costs and problems of workforce availability. While operators won’t need technical skills, there will be a growing requirement for qualified staff able to undertake development of new robotic systems, and the maintenance of existing ones.  As the robotics sector develops, so will the pool of technical specialists required to support new developments and ongoing operations.

One current estimate puts global send on industrial robots as rising from $28 billion in 2021 to $42.2 billion in 2026. Investment in robotics is set to continue in manufacturing, with fast growth to come in logistics, defence, medical and construction. Companies are expected to spend 25% of their capital expenditure on robotics over the next five years.

Robotics, automation and the deployment of AI systems are also at the heart of Industry 4.0 as the latest catalyst for driving industry forward. Past catalysts have been the steam engine, the assembly line and computers. The impact of robotics has yet to be seen across the board in industrial and service organisations, but its progress is gaining momentum at an irresistible rate.  


Robotics at PPMA Show

The annual PPMA Show provides an excellent opportunity to see the latest robotic solutions for businesses, and to meet suppliers, peers and industry experts. It is essential for businesses involved in packaging and production to understand the opportunities offered by the latest robotics systems and technologies. New approaches and solutions are continually becoming available, and are being embraced in every sector. 


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Find out more about robotics available from PPMA members by searching  PPMA Machinery Finder