When you hear about innovative technological advances that are reshaping industries, chances are you aren’t thinking about a factory floor. Not much has changed there since the first industrial robots were deployed in the 1960s — until now.
Collaborative robots, a new category of automation, are changing the way manufacturers optimize operations and drive innovation in new ways. As they increasingly work together with humans these sophisticated robots will help redefine the nature of work — boosting productivity, improving workplace safety and creating a more intelligent working environment with the help of Big Data analytics.
Foundational Shifts Create New Opportunity.
Increasingly, traditional low-wage markets are losing their competitive edge, as wages rise and consumers place higher emphasis on working conditions and the environmental impact of production. At the same time, manufacturers face labor shortages as the workforce ages and younger generations shun low-skill manufacturing jobs. In fact, Deloitte recently forecast that in five years, there will be 2 million unfilled factory jobs.
Compounding the complexity is the way in which consumer expectations are changing. Today, buyers want personalized items, and not just when it comes to luxury purchases. From smart devices to the cases that protect them, consumers expect customization and personalization — requiring manufacturers to shift from high-volume, low-mix processes to low-volume, high-mix models.
To meet these challenges — and recognizing that a strong national economy is a vibrant manufacturing sector — countries around the world are jockeying for the lead position. China recently kicked off Made in China 2025, a national program to upgrade its manufacturing sector and spur innovation with an investment of about $1.3 billion. The German Industrie 4.0 initiative resulted in nearly $1.5 trillion invested in manufacturing innovation. The U.S. Congress has authorized a $1 billion investment to accelerate advanced manufacturing technologies.
Collaborative robots can play a key role in the new model for manufacturing, where man and machine work side-by-side. Boston Consulting Group has projected that annual sales of collaborative robots could top 700,000 by 2025, up from In 225,000 in 2014.
Here’s how robots are transforming industry:
- Robots do the tasks, humans do the thinking: Robots are designed for execution and repetition. No matter how sophisticated robots get, there will always be tasks that require cognition and complex thinking that are better suited to humans. Robots will fill the low-skill job void and allow humans to drive innovation.
- Labor will have a lower impact on price: Historically, labor costs and regulations have played a major role in price setting. However, collaborative robots deemphasize labor concerns, allowing businesses to be located near customers, natural resources or critical infrastructure that can lower costs and help boost business revenue.
- Man and machine will safely co-exist: Contrary to a Hollywood depiction of robots usurping people, collaborative robots can actually sense humans and stop moving when someone gets too close, eliminating prior safety concerns. Efficiency without danger allows companies to focus on big-picture initiatives like inventing new products, improving quality and perfecting design-to-delivery cycles.
When placed side-by-side in the workstream, robots and humans will finally be able to work together on problem-solving, process improvement and much more. That’s where the next Industrial Revolution will take place, and manufacturers need to need to move now or risk being left behind.