Robots are Boring

Office Workers ArmyRobots are no longer the object of science fiction; they are here, capable and doing productive and valuable work in manufacturing. Collaborative robots arrived 5 years ago to kick off a revolution in automation. Safe enough to work alongside humans, capable of performing tasks in the variable and sometimes chaotic world of real-world manufacturing and easy to train, these robots drew a lot of attention from media, pundits, and educators. Manufacturers, skeptics that they are, were pragmatic, having been burned before by technology that promised breakthrough results and rapid ROI.

So, yes, it’s taken some time, but the tide has turned. Today, manufacturers are embracing robots to solve labor challenges; soon they will do more. As manufacturers take concrete steps to embrace Industry 4.0, the disruptive technology embodied in robots will drive more than efficiency and productivity improvements – it will become a vital contributor to operations that are agile, innovative and highly competitive.

Tearing Down the Barriers to Adoption

Automation historically was a massive undertaking: sizable investments, sophisticated programming expertise and months of integration for a single task to be automated. These barriers put automation far beyond the reach of the 250,000 manufacturers in the US with fewer than 500 employees.

Smart collaborative robots changed all that. These robots can

  • be used to do more than one type of task. Users tell the robot what to do (i.e. call up a task by name), put a tool in its hand (e.g. screwdriver in its gripper), and off it goes to work;
  • be on the job on day one. Manufacturers do not have to design the environment around the robot and
  • see and feel like humans, with onboard vision and the ability to feel multi-axis forces (not just one-dimensional) throughout its entire arm, allowing them to perform tasks that would otherwise be out of reach.

And all at a price point that brought the innovation mainstream.

Advanced Manufacturing Requires More

Productivity and efficiency, check. But manufacturing is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Tapping into the critical-thinking skills that people bring is essential. By freeing them up to focus on making informed decisions and problem solve, manufacturing operations become more agile, able to respond quickly to shifts in everything from performance to supply and demand.

In this model, robots play a vital role. Bringing smarts to the process, with intelligent analysis on error reporting, quality reporting, and status updates, the robots feed faster and better decision–making.

As manufacturers increasingly deploy smart, collaborative robots in an ever-broadening portfolio of tasks, in a wider range of industries, these robots are poised to become an integral asset in the world of digital manufacturing. Intelligent contributions to process improvement, quality, and more robust operations are only the beginning. Where do you see robots contributing to performance? What kinds of insights do you think robots should be able to offer? Tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.