According to the International Federation of Robotics; in 2017 there were 2.1 million industrial robots in the World. With a lifespan of something in the order of 25 years; that equates to almost 96 billion hours of human work!

That staggering figure is based on a 38-hour working week. Double that if you have the automation to keep the robots working a double shift. Robots have transformed many industries including automotive manufacturing where 33% of the World’s industrial robots cut; press; fold; weld and paint most of the car body. Just one example of this common practice is the MINI factory in the UK which has a room with 1,000 robots and the only human presence is a guy on an electric scooter buzzing around the floor, doing maintenance.

And it’s no different in the furniture industry either, especially overseas. Fifteen years ago a small company in Switzerland was using a robot to load small furniture parts for children’s chairs onto a CNC machine. The robot and machine ran 24/7 and even went so far as to change blunt tools when this was needed. If the system broke down for some reason after-hours when there was no-one there, the owner would get a text message. That was fifteen years ago in the furniture industry! The joke about the factory with no workers except a dog to guard the premises, and a man to feed the dog is becoming all too true.

Furniture manufacturing is one of these niche industries that has not traditionally been a major user of robots but offers significant opportunity for robot technology suppliers and integrators, and numerous advantages to the user. Much of the panel processing industry is still very labour intensive. The use of automated robotics in the furniture industry is relatively small when compared to other industries, but the opportunities are compelling. Industrial robots are on the verge of revolutionizing furniture manufacturing as they are now noticeably more intelligent, quicker and less expensive.

The earliest known industrial robot, conforming to the ISO definition was completed by “Bill” Griffith P. Taylor in 1937. The crane-like device was built almost entirely using Meccano parts, and powered by a single electric motor. The robot could stack wooden blocks in pre-programmed patterns. Industrial robotics took off quite quickly in Europe, with both ABB Robotics and KUKA Robotics bringing robots to the market in 1973. In 2017 almost 400,000 industrial robots are being added to the ‘workforce’ every year. Fanuc is only the 3rd largest manufacturer of industrial robots in the world but claims to build 6,000 to 11,000 robots a month.

Teaching the robot positions may be achieved in several ways. The first is where the robot can be directed to the required position using a GUI or text-based commands in which the required X-Y-Z position may be specified and edited, much the same as programming a CNC machine. Another method is “lead-by-the-nose” and this is a technique offered by many robot manufacturers. In this method, one user holds the robot’s manipulator, while another person enters a command which de-energizes the robot causing it to go limp. The user then moves the robot by hand to the required positions and/or along a required path while the software logs these positions into memory. The program can later run the robot to these positions or along the taught path. This technique is popular for tasks such as paint spraying.

Is it all bad news for human workers? Not according to a World Economic Forum study that forecasts 133 million new roles for humans that will replace the 75 million jobs lost as a result of robotics. The study finds that by 2025, robots will be doing 52% of all work tasks. “Robots are likely to have a bigger role in timber processing as they take over work that is dirty, dangerous or difficult” said Troy Krogh, regional director of Scott Automation & Robotics, at a Forest Industry Engineering Association conference in Melbourne last year. Troy continued “I look at it simply as the three D’s. Dirty, Dangerous or Difficult; if the work gets into one of those categories, well no one wants to do that! That’s the low-hanging fruit for automation,” he said. “Get people out of the dirty dangerous environment and get them in to better quality roles.”

Several robotics solutions have been shown to the furniture industry over the past few years at trade fairs in Hannover (Ligna); Milan (Xylexpo) and Sydney (AWISA). Leading the industry has been the Homag Group although their preference for complete factory installations has them with an advantage. Biesse Group is another company that has made significant strides into the field of robotics with stellar exhibits in Hannover and Milan. More recently, SCM Group has stamped their own mark with an impressive in-house presentation at their Rimini headquarters this year. And on a more local front, Wood Tech Group is clearly in the mix with an Australian designed and made robotic feeding system shown at last year’s AWISA in Sydney.

Robots also contribute to the problem of an ageing population. The countries with the most robots per industrial worker are Japan; Germany, South Korea and Singapore and these countries have some of the oldest workforces in the World. Countries with more slowly ageing populations such as Britain and France have far fewer industrial robots per worker. MIT and Boston University studies indicate that a ten-point rise in ageing ratio equates to 0.9 extra robots per thousand workers. Robotic manufacturing solutions are available right here in Australia from several leading suppliers beyond those we have already mentioned. A recent installation of a fully automated Biesse Group production line at Apollo Kitchens in Sydney is only one of several major examples of furniture and cabinet manufacturers making the leap into the future.

Pictured: Robots unload a Biesse Viet sander.