Liveworx | Robots, Cobots, and AI, Oh My!

Recently, my colleague Bill (native Bostonian) was talking about all his interactions with robots and how ubiquitous they’ve become, especially in these days of social distancing. As he said: “Robots ah everywhe-ah!” (My lame attempt at a Boston accent!). I’ve also heard him excitedly tell others “robots don’t cough! They can’t catch a virus so we should just have them do all of our grocery shopping.”

He’s right. Although whether you want a robot picking out your produce is a topic for another day. Take a look around. Robots are in grocery stores wiping up spills and answering questions (Where are the Cheetos?). They’re in smarter factory floors where cobots help workers with repetitive tasks. They’re cutting our lawns for us. They’re even in hospitals helping nurses lift and move patients, saving their backs from injury.

I’ve been with ADI for 20+ years and my background is electronic engineering with many years focused on Industrial Automation, in particular, motion control and robotics. In all this time, I’ve never seen such transformation in our society as I have these past few years with the explosive growth of robotics — and I expect much more in the post-pandemic world. I truly believe that’s a good thing.

Robots Help Supply Meet Demand

The landscape of manufacturing is changing to keep up with consumer demand and behavior. Expectations with more customization and faster turn-around times have forced manufacturers to change how they operate to respond to this new type of demand, including more localized manufacturing facilities and by designing production lines that can be quickly reconfigured for different batch sizes.

Increasing consumer demand is driving a shift away from low mix, high volume manufacturing towards high mix, low volume manufacturing, which demands greater flexibility on the factory floor. You want that BMW in bubblegum pink with your initials engraved on the hood? You got it. ROI for automation is increasing as robots become more affordable while also allowing greater productivity and flexibility.  

Traditional industrial robots like those you commonly see in auto manufacturers, operate at high speed and often with very large payloads, so they’re separated from humans using safety cages or light curtains. These types of robots are continuing to advance, demanding higher precision motion control, improved multi-axis synchronization, and size and power efficiencies.

Collaborative robots (cobots) that work alongside, or in cooperation with humans, are on the rise and are enabling automation of tasks that were previously only possible with humans. Cobots are much easier and cheaper to install than traditional industrial robots and have a lower purchase cost, too. Businesses can install and set up the robot and can program it themselves. This is leading more and more = manufacturers to automate where they couldn’t afford to previously, with a reduced total cost of ownership.

Today, manufacturers need to do more with less and tasks are being automated as opposed to entire jobs. Dull, dirty and dangerous tasks that are often referred to as the 3D’s are being automated, augmenting human work. This relieves employees of tedious repetitive tasks freeing them up to spend more time on the skilled portion of their job or to take on more cognitive rewarding tasks while reducing injuries. This maximizes employee potential, increasing job satisfaction, leading to less workforce turnover.

But fear not, there are many jobs where technology simply cannot compete with the intricacies of the human brain, for example, those tasks requiring human skills such as empathy, critical decision-making or process knowledge. 

5 Examples of Robot Revolution We’re Seeing in Today’s News:

  1. Pivoting manufacturing lines to essential products such as ventilators, hand sanitizer and masks. Flexibility in automation is key as cobots allow for seamless tool changes with plug-and-play interfaces and fast reprogramming, which allows the robot to be redeployed from an existing task to something new.
  2. Worker physical distancing or separation in manufacturing, logistics or workplaces like recycling centers where sorting and picking is needed. Even in meat processing plants where a robot between each employee could provide the required separation and also supplement the missing workforce to maintain productivity.
  3. Cleaning/Disinfection in hospitals, airports, malls and public spaces. This is where mobile robots really earn their keep. AGVs and cobots can team up and be faster and more effective than manual cleaning done by humans. We’re seeing some cool examples of AGVs using UV light to disinfect hospital rooms as a more effective method vs. spray, as UV germicidal irradiation breaks down or damages DNA in microbes, preventing them from spreading infection.
  4. Material transport and handling. You’ve probably already encountered service robots in hotels, hospitals or grocery stores like ol’ Bill. These robots in healthcare facilities can help distribute medicines or move samples to a lab, increasing efficiencies and decreasing human contact to dangerous materials. They’re programmed to navigate completely on their own, even riding in elevators without any human intervention.
  5. Picking and packing of goods in distribution centers. It’s already seen a huge growth in the adoption of automation/robots pre Covid-19, and now with more people buying online, this is a massive growth area. This picking and packing has to be done quickly and accurately in order to meet next day or even same day delivery consumers demand.

Keep Calm and Robot On  

Sure, there will continue to be the sky-is-falling-headlines about potential negative outcomes of automation, but you should stay calm and embrace your inner robot. The very real positive contribution of automation and robotics to human productivity, safety, competitiveness and job creation is enormous. In these ever-changing pandemic times, robots will play a key and expansive role in supporting society and helping with the recovery, while reducing dependency on global supply chains and reshoring manufacturing. And that’s something even Boston Bill can look forward to experiencing.

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