As product complexity increases and manufacturing facilities demand more flexibility, market forces are impacting the way we manufacture products. In order to keep pace with these changes, robotics has emerged as a key tool enabled by exponential changes in sensing, computational power, and Information Technology. As robotics continues to advance, companies are creating faster, more flexible, smarter, robots that enable a new field of applications that goes well-beyond traditional automated assembly which leverages repetitive functions on highly customized equipment.
At the same time, the current and the future relationships between workers and machines challenge our basic assumption that machines are tools that increase the productivity of workers. Instead, machines themselves are turning into workers, and the line between the capability of labor and capital is blurring as never before. The way we think and act about manufacturing as powered by labor is changing, the old process models driven by human capital are moving into hybrid production flows with a larger and larger contribution from Robots.
According to a PWC survey, about 45 percent of work activities can be automated, and CEOs plan to cut jobs over the next five years because of robotics. 16 percent of those surveyed had the opposing view that they planned to hire more people because of robotics.
"As robotics continues to advance, companies are creating faster, more flexible, smarter, robots that enable a new field of applications that goes well-beyond traditional automated assembly"
Advances in robotics are pushing the frontier of machine capability in all facets of business and the economy. Physical robots have been around for a long time in manufacturing, but more capable, more flexible, safer, and less expensive robots are now engaging in ever expanding activities by combining mechanization, with cognitive and learning capabilities. Nowadays, robots are part of a flexible system connected to, and part of, the smart factory. These assets provide real time information about production status, and can be redeployed and reconfigured according to demand requirements. They are collaborative, exogenous, and mobile. Consequently, delegating robotics solely to operations engineering as an automation solution to reduce cycle time or improve productivity by removing human labor is no longer an option. Rather, robotics should be considered by all parts of an organization to enable business objectives.
With consulting groups and leaders analyzing the impact of technology and robotics in various industries, and with an expected sales-grow thin robots from 2016 to 2019 (compared to the last 17 years according to International Federation of Robotics)it is imperative for businesses to develop a robotics strategy in order to build their internal capabilities and reduce skills mismatch. Businesses positioned correctly will benefit from this new wave of smart robotics bringing new pools of profitability.
Even though advancements in robotics technology have caused robots to be widespread, it is necessary to deploy and rationalize the utilization of robotics in an orderly fashion. Awareness within a workforce, and among senior leadership, is crucial to improve potential for success. Equally important is creating policies and guidelines to standardize applications, technologies, and supplier requirements. A four phase (Transform, Enable, Standardize, and Scale) strategy is proposed:
Transform. The phase of transformation intends to answer the question of what areas within your operations should be tackled first in alignment with business strategy. This phase outlines the steps, and best practices, to ensure a harmonious and accelerated deployment. This phase also attempts to select the type of robotics technology that can best be used for the manufacturing task being considered.
• High labor content (Straightforward application where robots may be used to supplement human workers): Technologies such as traditional SCARA and Cartesian solutions, or Collaborative Robots, may be selected depending on factors such as cycle time, level of collaboration, risk analysis, redeployment needs, and investment.
• Human skills gaps (Operations where humans are limited due to component size, weight, or dexterity constraints): Exoskeletons for heavy components management and high speed robotic arms for extremely fast operations are carefully chosen.
• Hazardous Operations (Operations that place a priority on safety): The applicability of robots in this environment requires a deeper understanding of the technology and processes. This category includes ergonomic opportunities to reduce injury or operations which handle hazardous material. Traditional Industrial Robots can play a role here, as well as tele-robotics to remotely handle dangerous materials.
• Critical Operations (Operations requiring exceptional precision, speed or flexibility): Placing chips with an accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter would be considered a critical operation. Light robots with low inertia and special grippers are adequate.
At the end of this phase, you should have audited, and categorized, the previous installed robotic implementations and technologies, identified all the potential opportunities in your organization, and determine what technologies are the most adequate for proposed projects. You should also start the deployment of a small number of implementations based on prioritization.
See Also: Manufacturing Outlook