Robots with Grit: Redefining Manufacturing

Aerial view of hedge mazeIn my last post on robots as agents of change, I looked at the ways in which collaborative robots are changing industrial automation. But changing automation is only the beginning.

Robots will transform manufacturing in ways that have not been seen since the last industrial revolution. And they will do more than just play a part in the changes that are coming. They will, in many ways, be the catalysts and enablers of a new age in manufacturing: the agile factory.

Manufacturers need these robots and the changes they make possible. Why? For the past 100 years, factories were designed to efficiently execute a plan. Make a plan. Execute the plan. But the real-world of the factory floor never works like the plan expected it to – suppliers miss delivery deadlines, equipment fails, yields fall short of the target. In any plant, there are scores of people who spend their days addressing all of the deviations from the plan. This system is flawed. It is hugely wasteful. I know. I lived it for years.

What’s needed? Lora Cecere, a friend and one of the brightest influencers in the supply chain space, has been writing and talking about supply chain response for many years. Her LinkedIn Pulse post addressed the future state of supply chain excellence where supply chains are able to sense and respond to fluctuations in demand. She’s onto something and I’d take her argument one step further. The ability to sense and respond – not just to demand shifts, but also to potential “gotchas” like process variations, quality issues or production bottlenecks –needs to be part of factory DNA as well.

Breaking Through: Robots with Grit

There’s a lot of talk today about “grit” – a simple word that conveys tenacity and perseverance. We recognize it as a characteristic that enables humans to succeed. As robots take their place in the workforce, grit will be essential for their success as well.

Yes. Robots will need grit and here’s why. Consider what it takes to give walking directions in a large city: you’re not likely to know every obstacle they might encounter – closed sidewalks, deliveries blocking the path, etc. Your instructions won’t include “jog left at this doorway to go around the pallets of produce” or “step to the right to avoid an open manhole.”

Like that person trying to navigate Manhattan, robots that work in manufacturing need to be able to persist in the face of obstacles. But since traditional robots need “a map” that programs every step they need to take in order to do even the simplest of tasks, they can’t operate in the ways manufacturers need them to.

Everything they need is gleaned from the input of the robot’s sensors; the robot uses that information and cognitive computing to adjust its actions according to the changes in its immediate environment. Robots driven by behavior show more biological-appearing actions than their rules-based counterparts. It will recognize a flaw in the process – a misaligned part for example – and adapt to ensure that the workflow continues. That’s a robot with grit.

This new generation of robots – self-configuring, self-optimizing and self-healing – will be able to identify anomalies and adjust manufacturing processes in real-time. With these robots, manufacturing operations will become more agile and less brittle in the face of normal variation. They will make it possible for manufacturers to quickly understand what’s happening, accommodate change and variation, and keep the production lines running every day to deliver results.

We’re just at the beginning of this transformation, but it’s picking up speed. Companies like JabilGE and Wasion are demonstrating the potential and documenting the results. How do you define the agile factory? What are you doing to build your factory of the future? Share your experiences with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.