The technological innovations of the last century have greatly improved our quality of life, both in our homes and in the workplace. Since the start of robotic automation, more and more dangerous and unergonomic work has been automated, freeing workers to perform safer and more rewarding jobs in the manufacturing environment. As with all innovative advancements, there are exaggerated expectations of where this technology will lead us. Some seek to adopt the latest trend without knowing if it is right for their applications. Others see this technology as a threat that will replace all human work. In reality, workers have always been and will always be a part of the picture, but what will their role be going forward?
Today, we are witnessing the digitalization of the robotics world, pushing the once advanced notion of “Robotic Automation” towards “Smart Robotic Automation.” This synthesis of hardware and software means robots, production lines, and even complete plants can be controlled, monitored, and optimized by connecting them and making intelligent use of available data via software and cloud technology. Even in these incredible advancements, humans continue to play an essential role in everything from direct interaction with robots to managing the data across an entire factory.
One of the critical challenges of working with robots is keeping nearby humans safe while the robot is performing application-related tasks. Until recently, the regular use of industrial robots was limited to keeping them behind safety fences and away from human contact. If the interaction was necessary, solutions like turntables were introduced to keep the two separated and minimize interruption of the process. The development of better sensor technology, like safety laser scanners, allowed humans and robots to work closer together, but it was the integration of software and sensors within the robot that has enabled them to work alongside their human counterpart. This lets the worker concentrate on flexibility and complexity parts of the job while the robot performs repetitive and unergonomic work.
"Smart robotic automation can also work the other way around and help us understand humans better"
The additional sensors and intelligent components within robotic systems have served as an enabler for a different development: predictive maintenance. By collecting and analyzing robotic data, it is now possible to monitor and predict potential robot failures before they happen, as well as streamline maintenance schedules. With that, already low downtimes for robot automation can be further decreased as the intervals between maintenance increase. This supports the human workforce by reducing stressful ad hoc service requests and optimizing both work and travel.
It is worth mentioning that humans play a significant role in the adoption of this smart robotic automation. Not only do they develop software and algorithms, but they also use their knowledge, lifelong experience, and intuition to cross-check data and patterns to find the information needed to bring this innovation to the next level. What besides predictive maintenance can best help someone on the production floor? Only a real person can answer that. It can be easy access to documentation, service information and support for all robots that a company has in production across the globe and independent from that location, or asset management. No software can answer that question. Humans not only increase the intelligence of this powerful technology, but they also make it possible in the first place.
Smart robotic automation can also work the other way around and help us understand humans better. Imagine a company with a consistent robotic process configuration set up in their plants globally. Comparing the robot and application performance data might reveal differences. And suddenly, it’s much more about the specific people than technology, and the slightly different processes the local technicians implemented within an operation. Understanding different people, cultures, and their way of thinking and doing allows us to improve processes on a global scale. A one-sided approach, that only tries to understand the technology without considering the human factor will not bring the best solution. What looks good on paper, very abstract and technology concentrated, might not work as soon as it hits the production floor. And what might work in one country might not bring the same success to another.
Incredible new technology is being developed every day, opening up a lot of exciting opportunities for automation. But it’s important to remember that we still have a long way to go until we discover what works best in the end. Keep an open mind, and don’t get too euphoric or too skeptical. Success depends on finding a healthy balance between the technology and humans that fit the needs of your specific application, plant, business, and circumstances. Sometimes, starting with small steps and looking for evolution rather than revolution might sound boring – but it might be more successful in the long run.