Next-generation robots are transforming manufacturing as we know it. Here’s how.
Ever since General Motors deployed the Unimate robot in its factories in 1961, robots in manufacturing have tended to be large, unyielding machines, typically limited to one task. Unimate had its advantages — it was versatile (for its time) and could do tasks that humans found dull or dangerous. Best of all, it performed with dependable speed and precision, without calling in sick or taking a cigarette break.
But now there’s a new breed of robots entering the workforce. And unlike their predecessors, these robots can perform more than one task and work alongside humans without being a threat. (Those old robots were so big, they could also be dangerous for humans to work near. See the section around “collaboration” below.)
The result is that manufacturers across all industries are starting to look at robots in new ways, with consequences that impact their products, their competition, and their bottom line.
Here’s a look at the impact of next-gen robots…
There is an ongoing debate over whether robots are “job takers” or “job makers”. As Boston Consulting Group’s Hal Sirkin said, “Robots are going to change the economic calculus for manufacturing. People will spend less time chasing low-cost labour.” The effect of this is that countries such as Australia, the United States, the UK and other high-wage nations will be able to bring back some of the processes that are currently performed by lower-paid workers in South-East Asia and the likes.
At the same time, using robots eliminates many unskilled job positions by automating repetitive and mundane tasks.
However, in the long term, this can lead to more humans being employed. Electric car manufacturer Tesla, for example, is renowned for its cutting-edge automation but is also the largest auto-industry employer in California. How? Because automation has helped fuel the company’s growth, which has, in turn, led to more hiring. (Check out our blog on the 3 brilliant lessons every food & beverage company can learn from Tesla.)
On the factory floor…
Robots have long been a feature in factories, but have mainly been used for heavy lifting, palletising and packing — in other words, tasks that don’t require a light touch. Then, when it comes to the small, more delicate jobs, humans take over. However, next gen-robots can take on tasks requiring more dexterity and precision — even more than humans can achieve.
Some researchers are also predicting that we will soon be able to set up robots easily so they can be moved and reinstalled in different parts of the line, meaning less investment in heavy fixed machinery. Already, robots are much lighter and more mobile than ever before.
At the same time, robots are being built to collaborate. Progress in the field of tactile sensing, machine learning, and socially intelligent robots means humans and robots can work side by side without humans risking life and limb. Robots can now use sonar, sensors and cameras to sense where people are, and adjust their speed or actions accordingly.
The most advanced can pass messages between software systems and sensors to make decisions based on their environment and function more autonomously. This next generation of smaller, safer and people-friendly robots not only works side-by-side with humans, but can also learn from us.
You only need to look at Google’s autonomous car and the way it can understand its environment and location, and can navigate and function accordingly, to see the potential for robots in manufacturing.
On products and innovation…
This versatility of robots means manufacturers will be able to produce shorter runs of products without having to reconfigure the whole factory floor. This could mean more niche products, more customisation and some much-needed innovation. This “flexible manufacturing” has the potential to open new markets for manufacturers, with products able to be varied according to geographical preferences and even individual tastes. Ultimately, this makes it easier for the company to get closer to the customer.
The new-age robots have the potential to shake up competition between companies of all sizes. Previously, small and medium-sized companies were less likely to use robotics than larger manufacturers, but this is likely to change. As robots become less expensive and more versatile, smaller manufacturers will have the ability to wage battle with their bigger counterparts. There are an increasing number of robots that can perform more than one task, such as picking and packing, testing and inspecting, which makes them a worthier investment for smaller companies. A PWC survey of small and mid-sized manufacturers in the USA found that 59% are already currently using some sort of robotics technology.
Does your future include robots?
The image of fast-moving industrial robots with heavy arms swinging dangerously within a cage is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The new generation of robots is smarter, nimbler, more mobile, more collaborative and more adaptable. They can take on more jobs and do so with more autonomy from humans. The more inexpensive and accessible they become, the more potential for big changes on the factory floor.
Significantly, this applies not only to the automotive industry, which has long employed robots, but increasingly to other industries, especially food and beverage. According to the report “Industrial Robots for Food & Beverage Industry: Global Market 2016-2022”, the food and beverage industry has been ordering an increasing number of industrial robots, with adoption outpacing that of traditional industries, including automotive and electronic. The Asia-Pacific region already dominates the global industrial robots market and has the strongest growth potential.
So, are you ready to employ robots? Or is it that next-generation robots are transforming manufacturing at your factory already?
With robotics a part of several blogs recently, you can find some good background information on how Industry 4.0 brings together the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and data science in a digitalisation of industry, big manufacturing changes experts predict for 2016, disruptive innovations ready to rock your supply chain, the innovations from 80-year-old family business Walls Machinery regarding robotics, and the innovations discussed at GS1’s 2015 Supply Chain Week. You may also like to read this piece on if we will ever see 100% automated manufacturing facilities?
Innovation, including with robotics, is clearly important to business success — and we have written a pile of blogs about it. Check out our “Innovation & Best Practice” section. You will also find some interesting material in our resource library, among our whitepapers, articles from our thought leaders, presentations, infographics and so on. All material from our resource library is free to download.
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