The Cobots Are Coming
A quarter of all U.S. jobs have the potential of being automated, according to a recent report published by the Brookings Institution.
Many industries, including manufacturing, will view this as one possible solution to address the skilled labor shortage.
Fortunately, manufacturing operations have access to new classes of cost-effective automation technologies that can work alongside existing workforces and amplify efforts to benefit both the employees and organization.
With advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, an increasing number of companies in the supply chain are looking into some form of automation.
Until recently, robots have been limited to precise, preprogrammed and repetitive heavy-duty jobs, such as automotive manufacturing, usually surrounded by cages to protect people from injury.
Robots that can see, learn and grip different items are advancing quickly into the retail, food, beverage, and consumer packaged goods industries.
Increase Efficiency, Reduce Costs
Deliveries of robots to food and consumer product companies rose 48% last year, while they fell 12% to the U.S. automotive industry.
The fields of retail and food service are considered fertile territory for robotic use with jobs that can be more easily automated to serve business needs. This type of automation can increase efficiency, reduce costs and improve performance.
It’s important to note that “just because you can automate something doesn’t mean you should,” according to John Santagate, research director for the service robotics market at IDC.
“There are aspects of the supply chain that shouldn’t be automated. You can leverage technology to support things, but there are still humans required in decision making and in production processes.
“Even the most automated facilities still need human oversight.”
Collaborative robots, more commonly known as cobots, work with, not instead of, manufacturing employees to reach new levels of productivity. Most are designed to work next to people without a required safety cage.
By 2025, cobots are projected to own a third of the industrial robot market, according to Loup Ventures Research.
The use of cobots creates significant opportunities for manufacturing efficiencies, innovation, and growth.
They can work safely with people in shared workspace, enhancing flexibility and processes lacking support. Their use can reduce repetitive-stress injuries or a need for new infrastructure.
Practical applications for cobots include palletizing, small parts assembly, machine tending, packaging, polishing, and parts inspection.
They are typically more useful in processes that are less complex given their reduced reach, lower carrying capacity, and slower speed.
Learning on the Job
Unlike traditional robots that require engineering-level programming, cobots are capable of learning on the job thanks to advances in artificial intelligence algorithms.
In many cases, a worker can reprogram a cobot by simply putting its arm through the desired motions; the cobot remembers the instruction and repeats it independently, without need for new code.
Automation in the form of robots and cobots is needed in many industries as companies struggle to find workers.
For example, unfilled positions in the warehousing and distribution category, well-suited for automation, jumped to its highest level since 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To achieve greater success in process innovation and reaching goals, companies may need to work with an integrator.
An automation integrator is someone who makes different versions of automation hardware—such as robots and cobots—and software work together as one large system.
And they help a business to understand the differences between how cobots and conventional robots work so they can plan accordingly for their manufacturing processes.
Traditional robots and cobots offer some of the same benefits: taking over dirty, dangerous, or repetitive jobs and enhancing productivity and yield. Automation offers real strategic advantages for the operations of an organization and opens opportunities for innovation.
As Deloitte stated last year in its Global Human Capital Trends report, many organizations are transforming their business by rethinking work architecture, retraining workers, and leveraging technology.
In addition to cutting costs and streamlining production, their goal is to enhance value for its customers. The use of automation tools is an important step toward delivering this value.
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