Mind + Machine: Changing the Business of Manufacturing

shake 2This space has been dedicated to exploring the ways in which robots are acting as change agents – of the category and of manufacturing. There’s a lot to be said for the ways in which those transformations are taking place now, and it’s all good. There’s a case though, that what lies ahead for robotics in the Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is where real excitement takes place. In the IIoT, robots that combine mind and machine change the ways in which goods are produced, and the entire business of manufacturing.

In the IIoT, agile factories are driven by “big data” – including quality metrics, market feedback, and real-time demand signals. In these factories of the future, the production floor is linked to the back office which is linked to the customer and suppliers. The flow of information between these centers will make business move more quickly, efficiently and profitably, because they will sense, respond and act more quickly to shifts in market conditions, customer demand and internal variability.

Achieving the aspiration is daunting. It can be disrupting – and not in a good way. We know of one company that invested $1 million in IIoT and then came to realize that they were collecting the wrong data. Another shared that his executives were very excited and pressing hard on the effort to deploy “big data” but when asked what they planned to do with the data, the response was a shoulder shrug and a quiet “I don’t know.” That won’t fly. For companies who make things, the manufacturing process is the lifeblood of the business. It needs to run every day and deliver results. Manufacturers must have a risk-mitigated way of leveraging modern technologies and smart, collaborative robots are the answer.

Building the IIoT from the Bottom-Up

This is where behavior-based robots come in. Capitalizing on the perfect storm of low-cost sensors, devices, processing power, data storage, connectivity and ways to handle big data, these robots make it possible to start with a single work cell, without needing to make significant changes to the environment. The model is based on organic growth; manufacturers can add more to the work cell, and then add more work cells. Once a work cell is running, manufacturers can use native performance and task data collection and introspection to provide on-the-fly task tuning and Cloud-based cognitive insights. It starts small with localized awareness, such as “the part isn’t there anymore, do something smart.” It will grow, enabled by the Cloud’s connectivity, process computation at a vast scale, deep learning and other advanced analytics to aggregate data with other structured and unstructured data and share learning with other robots within and across other factories.

By design, it allows an organization to safely deploy new technology, learn from the experience and modify the subsequent actions based on the learning. There is no big bet required. This is good. Manufacturers can’t wait for the end of huge implementation to see value – it has to be created all along the way.

Building the IIoT from the bottom-up represents a huge departure from the top-down, multi-year, multi-million dollar implementations of traditional industrial robots. More importantly, it allows manufacturers to build operations where productivity and capacity increase and costs are lower. As robots grow “smarter” they will accelerate our ability to drive more from every aspect of the business because we’ll be more agile and more able to meet customers where they are. Where do you see robots adding value to the business overall? Share your ideas with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.