How to Maximize the Use of Smarter Robots

Manufacturers have been using simple robotics for decades, but rapid advancements in the machines, artificial intelligence and data are coming together to continually create more powerful machines.

From manufacturing and transportation, robots being used in many sectors are becoming faster, stronger, more accurate and more intelligent. And for the first time, robots are being given the green light to operate in public. Delivery robots from Starship Technologies have now been approved with permission to operate in six states: Ohio, Florida, Idaho, Wisconsin and Virginia. These two-foot high robots weigh roughly 80 pounds and will be allowed to travel no more than 10 miles per hour on sidewalks and across crosswalks. While the robots first will be required to have a human observer should something go wrong, Starship Technologies representative David Catania said their pilots are stepping stones to full autonomy in public. “As we socialize the device into the community, that will allow us into the future to be 100% autonomous,” Catania said.

Fully autonomous robots could have big implications in many sectors, including manufacturing. Semi-autonomous robots already are moving about some manufacturing facilities and distribution centers, while “collaborative” robots now can share workspaces with humans and aid in a variety of tasks. They also can collect and share real-time information with warehouse management systems and manufacturing execution systems.

Prasad Satyavolu, assistant vice president of manufacturing and logistics at Cognizant, said the technology is continually growing to optimize not only the productivity of the robots but their relationship with humans. In one example of an aircraft factory, he said a human supervisor could inspect the finished product, then direct a robot to take a detailed inventory of problems, upload inspection reports and run analytic tools to lead to improvements in production.

“You must know what tasks are being done and you need to know what the costs-to-operate are with people to calculate an ROI.”

According to data from Loup Ventures, the market for industrial robots is expected to grow by more than 175% over the next nine years, and much of the growth will be from the collaborative robot space. While these robots represented only 3% of robots sold in 2016, they are expected to account for 34% of such industrial robots by 2025.

Yet Satyavolu said these results will be achievable only if manufacturers shift their focus to new skills for their workforce. Meanwhile, employees will need to work on the back-end to analyze a “floor of processes” feedback, he said. They’ll also have to develop systems and a means to calculate the return on investment of adopting such new technologies.

Brian Dillman of Universal Robots said the challenge of achieving an ROI with robots depends on the processes and objectives. Whereas some manufacturers may use robots for safety to remove people from the process, others may use them to increase production with additional shifts. “You must know what tasks are being done and you need to know what the costs-to-operate are with people to calculate an ROI,” Dillman said.

More companies are currently working to develop operating and brain systems for robots. Self-driving robot company Brain Corp. recently raised $114 million to further develop its BrainOS platform, which will make it possible to create autonomous commercial robots using off-the-shelf hardware and sensors. Brain’s technology will use artificial intelligence to allow robots to control their own motion and sense their surrounds. The company says it could offer equipment manufacturers an easy way to convert their existing machinery into functional robots.