Robots and IoT: Only human after all

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Robots and IoT: Only human after all

The latest generation of industrial robots and IoT is revolutionizing traditional production processes. Collaborative robots, known as “cobots”, will work alongside humans and enhance the quality of finished products.

Using IoT means that supply chain firms gain clearer visibility on the movement of goods – foot by foot, second by second. This translates into item-level condition monitoring, enabling companies to ensure that goods arrive in time, at the right place, and intact.

by Dr. Peter Wawer

Robots have long been work horses in the production lines of modern factories. Manufacturers worldwide – benefit from them in terms of increased productivity and lower cost due to their precision and working methods that support safety.

Technological advances in the fields of sensor technology, the rapid analysis of vast amounts of data, the advancement of artificial intelligence and power electronics – all have made the new generation of robots possible. Meanwhile, the robotics market is undergoing radical change. In addition to the well-known top dogs, many relatively small startups have entered the market; the trend is expected to continue. Their focus is to develop special algorithms as a basis for new robot concepts; these companies prefer to focus on new ideas rather than to spend as much time on the mechanical design and required electronics hardware.

Requiring only a few weeks to gear up, these specialized companies are able, for example, to set up development platforms to develop robots for use in a wide range of fields. Unlike the earlier robot generations, these do not require complex programming for the respective target applications. Instead, they can be easily and flexibly reprogrammed and can adapt their motion sequences – sometimes even independently – to new conditions. The new generation of Robots and IoT provides a broad application field for modern semiconductor products. The spectrum ranges from motor control, high-performance position and object detection, to Efficient and compact drives, power supplies, and chargers. It also includes the implementation of virtual safety gates to security functions with secure authentication and calibration.

Escaping their cages

To liberate robots from their cages, users must ensure that people do not come within a critical range of a robot that is working at high speed and with high precision. If people do enter the danger perimeter of a working robot, they could possibly be injured either through their own fault or by machine malfunctions. Designing robots with the corresponding degree of sensitivity is only possible with sophisticated sensor technology.

It is critical to make the area between people and robots safe, and it is also important to make space between the robots themselves. This is about making the protection zones more flexible, i.e., having small protection zones move along dynamically with a moving robot arm, for example. A zone concept is used when implementing these virtual fences. For example, only a warning signal is triggered when someone approaches the first warning level, while the robot continues to operate at full speed. When they get closer, the robot’s speed is reduced with a corresponding warning. Only in the immediate danger area does the robot stop. Appropriate protection mechanisms require extremely precise object recognition. Redundant sampling ensures maximum functional safety. It is also helpful to capture the direction of movement, such as when a person approaches and then moves away, or whether they enter the danger area. Intelligent detection of the actual danger situation prevents unnecessary downtime or slowing down of the robot’s work and, accordingly, prevents production losses and associated costs.

Only in terms of data security are secure systems also functionally safe – an aspect that is increasingly important in the context of Industry 4.0 and IoT. Cryptographic encryption can be used to avoid modification of the robot’s software code by non-authorized users to ensure that the robot only performs the functions it is supposed to. Accordingly, robots used as part of manufacturing processes are to be secured against manipulation, yet should also be set to permit wired or remote software updates. This requires secure authentication of users and newly added components.

Robots and Iot Taking Control

Taking control: Thanks to powerlinelike modulation and modern motor-control electronics, the number of cables can be reduced and transmission speed increased substantially.

Calibration is necessary for the correct functioning of robots. If, for example, a hacker manipulates the calibrations, a robot could then exceed the specified limits of movement. This is where security and safety converge – without Efficient security protection, there is no functional safety. This is an important requirement for future systems, which is addressed by dedicated security controllers or micro controllers with features such as the Hardware Security Module (HSM). Since the security functions are implemented in the hardware, users require little detailed knowledge of encryption technologies. In addition, the impact on existing software implementations is extremely low.

Mobile for longer

Efficient and compact power supplies and charging functions play an essential role in mobile robots. Based on the latest CoolMOS, SiC, and GaN technologies, Infineon expects an increase in power density by a factor of 2 to 5 compared to conventional battery chargers, with a shorter charging time for mobile robots. Wireless charging is also possible. The energy can be used even more Efficiently if the batteries are recharged via the braking process. This is made possible by modern power semiconductors and the improved use of batteries in uninterruptible power supplies, for example for buffering energy. Due to the increasing use of battery-powered automated guide vehicles (AGVs) in Industry 4.0 factories, AGVs could dramatically reduce the outlay and cost of the additional UPS batteries needed in manufacturing. Because the batteries of an AGV are located at the charging station, if networked, they could be used to some extent for the emergency power supply of the factory’s internal supply network.

Robots and IoT: Simply wired

A conventional industrial robot is usually based on a central motor control and numerous drives in the axes. This requires a considerable amount of wiring for a typical robotic arm with thick motor cables (three or more phases) per motor, plus an additional communication bus for control purposes and reading out sensor data.

Efficient and compact power supplies and charging functions play an essential role in mobile robots.

Thanks to modern semiconductors and the integration of powerline-like modulation, together with motorcontrol electronics, this outlay can be significantly reduced, thus also reducing weight and costs. In laboratory experiments, Infineon has succeeded in reducing the number of cables in a robotic arm from almost 30 down to only two or three. At the same time, transmission speeds for signal communication of well over 100 Mbps have been achieved. Less wiring also means fewer interfaces in harsh manufacturing environments, which in turn increases reliability. An initial prototype of such a motor control, for which Infineon integrates the necessary components, is in preparation.

From controllers and power electronics to sensors and chips for safety and security functions, Infineon offers a comprehensive range of components that can be used to implement Efficient electronics for the new generation of robots. Additionally, the company not only manufactures a comprehensive semiconductor portfolio for robots but also uses various generations of robots in its production lines. Many concepts that are currently being discussed in connection with Industry 4.0 are already in use. It is only logical that the knowledge acquired in robotics will then be incorporated into the further development of Infineon’s semiconductor offerings.

Dr. Peter Wawer is Division President Industrial Power Control at Infineon Technologie

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