Let’s glimpse into the work lives of several people:
• Mr. Smith is an operations executive at a global consumer brand. His manufacturing processes are labor intensive, and labor costs have been steadily climbing worldwide. He has run out of countries to move factories into. His supply chain is becoming increasingly complex, slow and vulnerable to disruption, and he’s worried that he doesn’t have a good way of knowing what’s happening on a daily basis. New types of products are being dreamt up by your designers, which has its own manufacturing challenges. In addition, consumers are demanding faster times to market, more customization, and higher value for their product in response to immense competition.
• Mrs. Leeis plant manager in an aforementioned factory. Customers are paying the same for product, yet your labor costs are rising, steadily putting pressure on your business margins. It is becoming harder and harder to hire labor, especially closer to urban areas, and there is significant unpredictability around Lunar New Year. Her management tells her that they are exploring more automation and robotics because the cost of automation is decreasing. Yet, she has no experience with automation and the associated cost is still prohibitively high. Unless there is a new factory, she can’t see how the big robotic cells with cages can fit in the existing factories.
• Mr. Gopal is a worker in an aforementioned factory. He comes to work every day and has developed skills in his work for 25 years. His pay is tied to the number of parts he produces every day. Yet, 75-90 percent of his day is spent not performing the skilled work that he is an expert at, and is instead spent on non-value added material handling and movement tasks. He has seen a new robotic cell that his management commissioned, but can’t see how he can use it since it needs experts from the city nearby to change or operate (and they don’t know anything about the task he’s been doing). In addition, he has heard that only some models can be made on the cell and others require special manual preparation to take out the variability. He wishes he had more help within his current work environment to augment his work load and help him produce more parts (and earn more pay). Why can’t these machines be more like his cell phone which his 3 year old daughter can expertly operate?
• Mr. Stan is a worker loading boxes into trucks. He has a “quota” to meet in terms of boxes loaded so that the warehouse sort can end early. Its 2 weeks to Christmas and the volume of packages is at record levels. While he would like to go faster to help the company, quite often the boxes are fed in a deluge and spill all over the truck, and he has to walk around and pick them up one by one, slowing him down. He has heard that the newer factories have expensive equipment to solve this problem, but he is working in a 15 year old distribution center and has no control over the boxes and whether or not he can meet his “quota”.
Automation: The Answer Or The Question?
Several global studies have predicted that robotics and automation will fundamentally change the landscape in manufacturing and logistics by addressing many of the needs listed above. Indeed many industries such as automotive or semiconductor (and the upstream sortation in logistics) have a high degree of automation today. However, opening up new frontiers for automation so that it helps Mr. Smith, Mrs. Lee, Mr. Gopal and Mr. Stan in traditionally low-tech industries requires a new paradigm for automation that can fit into today’s factories, and not just tomorrow's "factories of the future".
"Consumers are demanding faster times to market, more customization, and higher value for their product in response to immense competition"
In order to really help address challenges in these types of industries which are not considered “automation ready” in a scalable human-centric way, robotic systems must go beyond the “collaborative robots” paradigm and towards a plug and play “appliance” paradigm. A printer, refrigerator, or washing machine performs a certain task, only needs electricity to operate, can be moved around from place to place, can be installed with minimum training or effort, and needs no advance degree to install or operate. In a similar way, elegant robotic “appliances” would have the following characteristics:
• Mobile so it can be deployed where the work is and interface with other existing pieces of equipment
• Application specific, intuitive user interface built around the tasks
• Able to provide “agency” to the operator and provide useful feedback that enhances the productivity of the operator or the team of operators
• Standardized to operate across a wide variety of materials commonly applicable to that task
• Low capital cost to target an attractive Return on Investment (ROI) in places like Asia
• Plug and Play with electrical operation
• High level of software integration including consumer-product type interfaces
• Able to operate in a variety of environments with limited power and communications sophistication
• Able to monitor itself and alert maintenance without requiring engineering services on site
• Able to convey data about the task it is performing to various stakeholders in a seamless fashion
• Safety and collaborative robot principles “built in”
A holistic, human-centric design approach based on these principles will allow robotic automation to penetrate a new generation of applications and industries in manufacturing and logistics.