It may sound unbelievable, but the results have been thoroughly checked - within the next decade, the capital goods industry may benefit from energy-saving potentials of 1,200 peta joule per year by using energy-efficient technologies. Among other energy saving measures, ‘Green Automation’ that focuses on the energy efficiency of automated plant will play a very important role in it. The term ‘green’ refers to automation technology as a thrifty consumer of resources that is as efficient as possible. On the other hand, it equally refers to automation technology as a prerequisite for making renewable energies competitive and successful. “The challenges with regard to energy and resource efficiency and the economical manufacture of ‘green’ products can only be met with the increased use of intelligent automation technology”, says Thilo Brodtmann, Managing Director, VDMA Robotik + Automation. “Energy-efficient automation pays off. Billions can be saved, while avoiding the emission of millions of tonnes of CO2. The Green Automation initiative is to foster relevant developments and, at the same time, contribute to profitable and ecological production processes and environmentally friendly technologies, such as photovoltaics, wind power and electric cars,” he further added. Kuka Robotics is an active member from the very first beginning of this automation sector’s joint initiative, an initiative for environmentally friendly use of resources. As Dr Andreas Bauer, Director – Marketing, informs, “Kuka Roboter GmbH actively pursues a three-pronged approach to environmental protection: in internal processes within the company itself, in its product portfolio, and in the intelligent automation of competitive series production of green technologies, such as solar cells or fuel-saving lightweight vehicles.”
Discussion about climate change, the shortage of resources and the worldwide increase in energy consumption combined with dramatically rising energy costs make it clear where the trend in manufacturing is heading. The order of the day is: think green. The contemporary importance of this topic is indicated not only by the increasing energy prices, but also by the transformation that the topic of ecology has triggered in our society. The new eco code is meanwhile developing into one of the most powerful forces in the market. Intelligent products that make use of recyclable materials and energy-saving technology are shaping our future. It falls to the automation sector to come up with innovative solutions to make resource-saving technologies possible and to pave the way for them. For automation, ‘green’ signifies a challenge at several levels: on the one hand, flexible handling of new materials, innovative composite technologies and more sophisticated manufacturing processes. On the other hand, every step in the production chain – i.e. also the automation plants and systems themselves – must comply with the changed premises of ecological awareness and energy efficiency.
Making automation & robotics green
Automation solutions are composed today of complex systems from various disciplines. It includes robots of all categories, assembly and handling technology, machine vision and further technologies, such as control systems and sensors that are needed to create a complete automation solution. As a universal automation tool, robots show their versatility in all end-user industries, not only in the automotive sector but increasingly in the general industry, such as in food production, plastics industry or electronics manufacturing, to name a few. Assembly and handling technology comprises all technologies that are used to assemble single parts to create a more complex device (or an end product). There are components for assembly and handling, such as grippers or parts feeders, and complete assembly machines or lines which are used for assembling the most diverse types of products - from ball point pens to cars. Machine vision is best described as the eye of the machine. There are already energy-saving options in the choice of the processor concept within machine vision in the development of intelligent cameras and vision sensors with high computing power. Cameras monitor production processes and supply images which are automatically analysed by software. This ensures smooth, flawless and efficient production. The guiding principle behind ‘Green Automation’ is that robotics and automation can and should play an active role in realising environmental-protection objectives. Furthermore, reducing energy consumption and costs improve a company’s ability to compete at the international level. The robotics and automation industry can make a substantial contribution to environmental protection and the efficient use of resources with the Green Automation concept. Which technological solutions help achieve this? How can the contribution of robotics and automation towards resource-efficiency be quantified? Which pre-eminent examples lead the way to sustainability? The initiative Green Automation gives answers to these questions and provides in-depth information on this subject. For example, Kuka has not only designed its own production eco-friendly, but also developed its manufactured products consistently for resource-saving operation. The company has focused on the energy consumption, lubrication consumption and long operating life of its robots. One indicator for the energy efficiency is the ratio between weight of the robot and its load-carrying capacity: less material to accelerate and move means less energy is required.
Achieving resource efficiency
How do these revolutionary technologies contribute to resource efficiency? Two fundamentally different approaches can be distinguished:
- Energy and resource efficiency in automation
Innovative automation technology runs on less energy and is thrifty when it comes to using resources. Products do not only consume energy while being used. In a more holistic analysis it becomes evident that already in the production phase substantial amounts of energy and resources are used. These resources can be reduced. Good examples are robots that need less energy, machine vision systems that reduce scrap and assembly lines that achieve high output volumes economically.
- Robotics and automation makes green technologies competitive
What is the use of revolutionary technologies for producing energy or increasing resource-efficiency if they only work in the laboratory but cannot be produced economically and in high volumes? Robotics and automation technologies achieve breakthrough production processes that help turn green technologies into reality - by substantially cutting manufacturing costs. This is currently happening in the photovoltaics industry which increasingly automates the production of solar cells and thus approaches grid parity. Experts expect solar power to be competitive without subsidies in about five years from now.
Green Automation is a topic everywhere in robotics, assembly & handling technology and machine vision. What happens when robots develop ecological intelligence? Where in the past the energy consumed by robots was hardly ever addressed, rising electricity bills, too, now make the industry think twice. Robot producers are called upon to apply new technologies, such as lightweight constructions, innovative drives and optimum control technology to reduce power consumption. In the future, we will need interfaces that provide us with current consumption figures of production robots any time to ensure maximum transparency. The energy consumed by robots is particularly significant in the case of large six-axis devices, used in, for example, the body shell lines of auto makers. Lines where up to 1,000 robots work offer substantial saving potentials if operated wsith energy-efficient robotics. Green technologies often involve the use of new combinations of materials and require new manufacturing processes. The processing of carbon-fibre mats in the construction of aircraft or wind power plants, the joining of lightweight aluminium in the vehicle industry, and the cost-effective manufacture of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles or solar cells are not possible without robot-based automation. Implementation of the necessary robotic production processes is centered on an open PC controller designed for these new applications and safety functions that even allow close human-machine cooperation in intricate assembly tasks. Talking about Kuka’s contribution, Dr Bauer elaborates, “Kuka has not only made production of its products environmentally friendly, but also systematically developed the products themselves for operation with low impact on resources. To this end, the company has focused on energy consumption and durability of its robots, in order to minimise life-cycle costs and increase cost-effectiveness. One practical example: Kuka is the world’s first robot manufacturer to use environmentally-friendly, water-based paint for its robot systems. Annual energy savings averaging 8 per cent per manufactured robot have been achieved in production over the past five years. Besides, solar cells on the roofs of the plant provide electricity”.
Energy efficiency in components
It goes without saying that pneumatic components with minimal requirements for compressed air and drive technology with optimal efficiency significantly contribute to an improved energy balance and are – ecologically – first choice. In the case of drives for a longitudinal transfer system, however, the best possible energy yield and maximum flexibility may not be so easy to reconcile. If a central drive is used for all modules with one single motor, this solution will prove to be more advantageous than a plant with local drive technology, where the individual line modules are propelled by own motors. When the plant is to be redesigned subsequently, decentral drive solutions will probably be more useful. Of course, also the innovation enabler of the industry, machine vision technology, has interesting possibilities for sustainable and resource-efficient production processes. In many cases, the use of machine vision systems alone significantly contributes to an optimal exploitation of resources. This may be the case, for example, where faulty parts are immediately identified by an inspection camera and eliminated from the production process, thus saving the wastage of energy. The complexity of the subject-matter shows it - the experience and know-how of the plant makers are just as important for the energy efficiency of modern plant as the use of green components and innovative technology is. Dr Michael Wenzel, Chairman of the Robotics + Automation Association and Managing Director of Reis Robotics, opines about the role of system integrators from own experience: “the overall energy balance of a plant has become increasingly important. To achieve optimal energy efficiency, it is important to focus not only on the energy required for the components and for the best possible design, but we also have to scrutinise every other single process for saving potentials. Holistic thinking and consistent use of the latest processes will finally lead to the best possible result.”
Relevance to India
Since the goal of the initiative Green Automation is saving resources via automation, it has a crucial role to play in India. A major application area in India would be more energy efficiency and competitive production in the field of renewable energies. As Rajesh Nath, Managing Director, VDMA India, observes, with India being in the phase of a robust industrial growth, the sustainability can be enhanced by optimal utilisation of the resources be in raw material, power or human resource. We are a power deficit nation. Hence the development in technology should generate process and system which are energy-efficient. Moreover, role of Green Automation is important for the industrial development of the country as it would enable, for example, robots that need less energy, machine vision systems that reduce scrap, and assembly lines that achieve high output volumes economically.
The driving forces
The driving forces behind Green Automation are the VDMA Robotics + Automation Association, the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA), and the international trade fair Automatica. The initiative puts resource and energy efficiency in (and through!) automation in the spotlight. The aim is to raise the awareness for sustainability and show the potentials of innovative automation technologies in this regard. Beyond that, Green Automation pursues another aim, too: to achieve a breakthrough for innovative technologies, such as power generation through photovoltaics, wind power or the electric car, by applying environmentally friendly, ultra-modern automation processes. Trendsetting automation processes help to reduce production costs, while sophisticated production methods significantly improve the efficiency. “Efficient factory automation is the first step for an economical and ecological successful company. In the long term, only those manufacturers who are able to produce reusable or sustainable ecologically friendly products with intelligent automation technologies will become market leaders,” concludes Dr Andreas Bauer. ? With inputs from VDMA, Automatica & Kuka Roboter GmbH
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