What Legos Taught Me About How Robots Should Work

jim_lawtonI grew up in Newport, RI, a city rich with breathtakingly beautiful vistas. Most Saturdays, I’d be walking the ocean cliffs at Brenton Point or hiking out to Hanging Rock at the Norman Bird Sanctuary overlooking Second Beach.

Fresh air and nature were great, but what I really loved to do was build things. Out of my head and into my hands, I would put things together with Legos or an Erector set and make them work. When I got bored, I would take something I’d already built apart and put it together in a different way.

I share this because I see that traditional automation solutions come together a lot like the skyscrapers I would make from those bricks. You start with a big bucket of parts – arms, cameras, conveyors, PLC’s, lots of wire. After many hours of assembling components and programming customized code, a unique solution is deployed on the manufacturing line or in the distribution warehouse. It’s a model that’s worked for decades.

Assembling one-off solutions is great for an 8-year-old growing up or for a manufacturing line dedicated to building one SKU ten million times. But many sectors of manufacturing today are experiencing a shift toward mass customization. From cell phones to cars, manufacturers are moving toward delivering customer-defined products. For example, BMW Individual was a previously little-known program that has gone mainstream, delivering individualized cars to consumers globally.

Cost effectively achieving lot sizes of one is hard—and won’t be accomplished without looking at the problem of automating the factory of the future in a different way. And even if you aren’t seeking that nirvana, today’s manufacturing reality is that market shifts are measured in months rather than years and the appetite for continuous innovation is voracious. This requires greater and greater levels of flexibility and ability to deal with this constant change cost effectively. It requires responsiveness and interchangeability.

For humans, this comes naturally. We change tasks without very much thought at all. From creating a presentation to loading the dishwasher, we shift gears constantly. This seamless transition between tasks has been beyond the reach of robots. To meet the needs of the new age of manufacturing, we have to change how robots are designed to work. Robots will behave as multipurpose workforce enablers and less like the highly customized, single-task installations they are today. This will allow the robot to be put on the job that is required. If today, you need it on line #1 performing task A and tomorrow you need it on line #2 doing task B, getting the robot to make that switch has to be easy and something that can be done by personnel currently in the plant.

To make multipurpose robots a reality, I think Buckminster Fuller said it best, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

That model is a robot driven more by software than hardware. Hardware in robotics is, of course, a given. But software is where the opportunity for a game-changing model lives.

Driven by software, multipurpose robots bring an entirely new ability to automate physical tasks. These robots are able to perform a wide range of tasks, change between those tasks with just the click of a button, continuously add new skills, and store the skills needed to perform tasks previously performed when needed.

Just a few of the features that multipurpose robots bring to the 90 percent of tasks in manufacturing not yet automated include the ability to:

Much more able to operate like humans, multipurpose robots are going to change how manufacturers are able to achieve the dual objectives of efficiency and innovation. I see it like this: today, when I buy Legos for my kids, they are pre-packaged to build a specific design—just like traditional automation solutions. It’s a great way to sell more Legos, but a creativity-killer from where I sit. I’m not saying robots that are flexible and able to do more than a single task are going to make manufacturers more creative – but I do believe that when automation can be deployed to solve the repetitive, less cognitive tasks and do more of them, then humans will be free to do what they do best – solve problems and innovate.

What do you think? Share your perspectives with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.