Think You Know Industrial Robots? Think Again.

UnimatePeter Drucker said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and in my experience, there’s no industry where that wisdom holds more true than manufacturing. I’m not a hardened cynic, just a pragmatist, having spent the majority of my career bringing technology that disrupts the status quo – from inventory optimization and managing risk in the supply base to collaborative robots. Manufacturers are among the most skeptical buyers and for good reason – what they do is hard, complex and things are done the way they are done because it’s been proven to work. There are times though when the opportunity to transform the business is so compelling that – as Drucker said – executives need to spend whatever time is necessary to tear down the cultural barriers that are getting in the way of the strategy that capitalizes on the moment.

In the category of robotics and industrial automation, now is one of those times. It’s been more than 50 years since Unimate went to work at a GM plant unloading heavy parts and welding them onto automobile frames. Manufacturing has changed a lot and today is on an evolutionary path toward the 4th industrial revolution. Unfortunately, while executives may be ready to move quickly toward the factories of the future for first mover advantage, many automation engineers remain entrenched in 20th century thinking about robots — when they were highly customized solutions, designed to perform one task over and over again, with a price tag to match.

New Robots, New Truths

Manufacturers who think they know industrial robots need to think again. The new category of smart, collaborative robots has changed everything once held true about robots for manufacturing.

  • Cost is no longer a barrier: With a robot that costs around $25,000, manufacturers can recoup the initial investment in less than one year and more importantly are able to deploy the robot for multiple tasks without expensive reprogramming.
  • You do not need a PhD in robotics to put one of these to work: the best person to train a smart, collaborative robot is the person who actually does the work. Because the robots “learn” by doing the task, guided by a human colleague, they can go to work immediately.
  • No more monuments: One fundamental challenge with traditional automation has been the static nature of the machines. The permanent nature of these installations required first, that the manufacturer design its process around the robot and second, that once the process changed, the robot becomes not much more than – as one of my customers calls them – monuments. Today, robots operate in support of the process – not the other way around.
  • The world isn’t perfect, and your environment doesn’t have to be for the robot to work: Variability is a reality – parts won’t always be placed exactly where or how they should. Rather than assume a perfect world, which can come at the expense of flexibility and agility, the new category of robots are able to deal with the changes and normal fluctuations that are inherent in most modern manufacturing environments.


Pick a Project, Prove it Works and Repeat

When Unimate was introduced, telephones were tethered, computers were kept in warehouse-like spaces and the news was printed on paper. All of that has changed and so have the robots.

Remember my earlier point about skepticism and reluctance to run full tilt toward change shared by many in the field? In all honesty, I think it’s a good thing hold fast to the ‘prove it’ mentality. And the good news about this new category of robots is that it is possible to demonstrate quickly how effective they can be. With smart, collaborative robots, you don’t need to change a single thing about how you run your production lines today. Find a task that people should NOT be doing. Get those folks to show the robot what needs to be done. Measure the increase in efficiency and productivity. And move on to the next task. It really is that simple.

Embracing now the new truths about these robots is essential to exploiting Industry 4.0 and the advances in manufacturing technology that will transform how products are delivered. I welcome hearing about your experiences in discovering just what these robots are able to do and what you’ve found along the way. Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.