Rolling the Ball, Not Reinventing It: Robots Augment Industrial Processes in the Beautiful Game

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In 2014, over one billion people tuned in to watch the FIFA World Cup final between Germany and Brazil. Many were watching for love of “the most beautiful game in the world,” dubbed so by world-famous footballer Pele, loved by his home country Brazil second only, maybe, to the Virgin Mary. Others tuned in for the tension and the terror: it is a literal level playing field for nations to display themselves and their prowess. And of course, it is a spectacle made complete with grand stadiums, massive marketing campaigns and a tough-as-nails tournament filled with the best soccer players in the world.

This spectacle takes immense effort to bring together. It is built on a global foundation of football love. With such a worldwide and high demand, sports industries have started using robotics and automation to meet demand. Here are three automated systems keeping the ball rolling.

Automated Soccer Ball Manufacturing Process: Thermal Bonding

From the sport’s inception until the mid-2000s, soccer balls were hand stitched, primarily in Pakistan. However, after the millennium, scientists optimized the soccer ball construction process with two new methods: machine stitching and thermal bonding. Although hand stitched soccer balls remain high quality and desirable goods, FIFA and other professional organizations rely on balls made through the semi-automated thermal bonding process. First used in 2004, these balls go through a complex method that involves heat, pressure and glue. Specialized machines are programmed to assemble and finish the parts inspected by production laborers, including painting the balls. Using these new factories and automated processes, soccer ball manufacturers, such as adidas, can produce thousands of balls a day.

Compared to the manual stitching method, thermal bonding is less labor intensive and more productive. The balls are also smoother, more water resistant and maintain their shape longer. The process increases the ball’s aerodynamic capabilities by minimizing the number of panels used per ball. They are also more uniform in their construction compared to the handstitched models, which ensures more even play during tournaments such as the World Cup.

The Robotic Soccer Suit

In 2014, a paraplegic man kicked off the World Cup. How? He was wearing the Bra-Santos Dumont, a robotic exoskeleton that connects neurological signals to an able machine. Don’t worry: robots aren’t the future of athletics. The Duke University researcher who oversaw development of the device, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, used soccer to demonstrate how robotics can expand human horizons in physical endeavors. This performance was part of the Walk Again Project.

While this machine is still in the lab, it foretells a future where dangerous and repetitive tasks are attainable for the average laborer. Employees of car giant Ford have used exoskeletons in automotive manufacturing to augment their strength and diminish the risk of bodily harm.

Automatic Line Marking Robot

Saving teams and associations thousands of dollars are intelligent, automated line marking robots. One company with this technology is Turf Tank. They make the “Intelligent One” (ION) robot. Using GPS coordinates, these devices rapidly paint fields for the right sport with few, if any, errors. They’re especially helpful when paint gets worn away by inclement weather, intense play or other factors between games in a tournament. Lines can quickly be redrawn and play resumed.

While it’s true that individuals could be paid to mark these lines, the job is tedious and uncomfortable. The duties fall to coaches or volunteers in smaller associations. This robot frees up those individuals to help with warm-up, practice and other essential activities.

Honorable Mention: TOCA Touch Trainers

These high-tech machines stunned the soccer training market. Designed by pro soccer player Eddie Lewis and his team of engineers, the TOCA Touch Trainer is an automated ball kicker. Much like a pitching machine in baseball, this machine optimizes practice time by maximizing ball fielding time.

Programmable by mobile device, it can shoot balls as rapidly or slowly as one needs, even applying different spin. The device is also intelligent: it logs data, such as number of reps or exercise routines completed, and offers feedback on the practice session.

Sealevel and industrial automation

Sealevel World Cup fans would welcome the opportunity to provide solutions for your soccer-related manufacturing. Our automation and control I/O devices tighten up industrial processes. Let us optimize your system.