Robotics for Intelligent Factories

roboticsManufacturers, looking for new and practical ways to integrate robots into their operations, are finding that robots are a strong influence in manufacturing competitiveness.

Why are manufacturers introducing more robots into their production lines? For certain jobs robots surpass humans in terms of the quality of the work that is produced. Robots are more efficient than humans when there is a need for precision positioning, repeatability, accurate inspection and measuring and robots do not make mistakes because of fatigue.

Manufacturing robots create efficiencies from raw material handling to finished product packing. They can be programmed to operate 24/7 for continuous production. They are highly flexible and can perform complex functions. They are cost-effective even in small manufacturing facilities.

The main areas where robots should be utilized are where heavy lifting is needed. This will cut down on employee injuries. They are proficient in performing repetitive work, where such jobs cause fatigue in employees. They can work in contaminated environments, which could cause major health problems in employees.

Manufacturing robots have their limitations. Industrial robots are mere automatons. Humans program them to perform a simple task, and they repeat that task repeatedly. Assignments that require decision-making, inventiveness, adaptation, and on-the-job learning are given to humans. But when a job’s just right for a robot, productivity tends to increase dramatically.

The concepts of smart factories and robotic factories are gaining significance, with some companies opting for complete robotization in their factories. In robotic factories, most work processes are controlled and operated by robots from start to finish, requiring humans only to oversee overall operations.

In 2015, China became the first nation to experiment with robotic factories, with the city of Dongguan incorporating unmanned factories for the first time. Through its “Robot Replace Human” program, the city is expecting to finish 1,000-1,500 of these projects by 2016.

Although other countries such as Germany are also making efforts to automate plant facilities, China is considered to be the major market where this trend has evolved, as it is the largest user of industrial robots.

Many research institutes, companies, and governments worldwide are focusing on research initiatives to develop advanced robotic technologies. Research projects are in progress to incorporate cloud technology into robotics. Cloud-based robots would facilitate automatic real-time transfer of data into cloud platforms.

In companies such as ABB, human and robot team-mates swap tasks to maintain efficiency and speed up industrial processes. An experiment by researchers of MIT concluded that co-operative processes between humans and robots reduced human idle time by almost 85 percent.

Integration of the IoT in robotics

Growth in the IoT concept and technological advances have boosted the use of automated technologies in various industries. The high penetration rate of smart devices and use of wireless and cloud technologies will change the face and mode of operation of robots in the near future.

Vendors are offering their services and control modules through smart devices and Wi-Fi technology for remote operation of industrial robots, including assembly robots. Since these devices offer more flexibility and convenience in operations, end-users prefer these technology-enabled robots in factory facilities.

The future will be automated

This shift toward automation is not new, but current advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, supported by substantial capital investments, are accelerating this trend and will continue to improve organisational performance in multiple ways. Gartner predicts that by 2018, 45% of the fastest-growing companies will have fewer employees than instances of smart machines. As technology accelerates and the number of processes and things infused with software is growing rapidly, so are the possibilities for what can be automated. The speed of change is immensely fast and we’ve so far only seen hints of what’s to come. Exponential improvements in voice recognition, sensors, natural language processing, machine learning and computing power are giving rise to a new generation of transformative systems that will change the rules for how business is being done by solving an expanding range of business problems—from routine tasks to groundbreaking achievements.

An increasing number of artificial intelligence applications are being developed that make machines more sophisticated in how they learn and make decisions­—expanding the limits of what a robot is and can do. By gathering and synthesizing vast volumes of data from multiple sources, these intelligent machines can automate complete processes or workflows, learning and adapting along the way. This rapid development of intelligent automation is bringing about a new era of productivity and innovation on an astounding scale, setting new standards for quality, efficiency, speed and functionality.

The future winners of the digitized economy will embrace intelligent robots as a springboard for new growth and innovation, rethinking what they do across every area of the enterprise.

Before long, machines powered by artificial intelligence will become a core capability that pervades every dimension of the business, enabling a more productive relationship between people and machines. The future winners of the digitized economy will embrace intelligent robots as a springboard for new growth and innovation, rethinking what they do across every area of the enterprise. Frontrunners are already using it to increase agility, simplify systems and operations, speed up time to market and drive continuous experimentation with new products, services and business models—reinventing their organisation and industry in the process.

However, incorporating artificial intelligence into the business won’t be an easy task. It requires organisations to rethink how many things are being done and entails a major shift in how IT systems are built. Organisations will need to redefine their business and IT architectures, incorporating AI as a new foundational layer. Organisations that fail in this endeavour will see themselves be surpassed by more forward thinking and agile competitors.

Thinking machines

Knowledge workers are being complemented by technology in increasingly high-value ways. The next wave of cognitive technologies will give rise to a virtual workforce that can replicate a considerable number of human actions and automate nearly any software-based process— enabling end-to-end automation of a large part of our daily lives, which means that many jobs will be redefined. Gartner suggests that one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025. We will see companies with workforces that comprise a mix of human and virtual employees working in concert on tasks for which they are individually perfectly suited. This evolution will have implications stretching across all areas and take many different forms.

  • Cobots: A new generation of intelligent, collaborative robots are capable of learning from their human coworkers and performing a widening range of sophisticated tasks. By connecting cobots with machine learning, we will in a near future also see robots that can train themselves. Examples include Amazon Robotics’ mobile-robotic fulfilment system for automating retail distribution centres, Universal Robots’ machines that can perform a variety of jobs from sorting eggs to blood samples and Boston Dynamics’ autonomous, quadruped robots capable of climbing, running and following commands.
  • Cognitive agents: New artificial intelligence platforms like IPSoft’s cognitive knowledge worker Amelia makes it possible to automate and augment business processes across a broad range of functions. Amelia is a virtual service-desk employee who speaks more than 20 languages, learns on the job, replies to e-mail, answers phone calls and holds conversations. She learns from reading manuals and situational context as well as by observing and working with human colleagues. In a help desk situation Amelia can understand what a caller is looking for, ask questions to clarify the issue, find and access the required information and determine which steps to follow in order to solve the problem.
  • Robo advisors: The past few years have seen the rise of robo advisors such as Wealthfront and Betterment—online wealth management services that provide automated, algorithm-based portfolio management advice without the use of human financial planners.
  • Robotic-Process Automation: RPA systems like UiPath and Blue Prism are revolutionising the way organisations think about and operate business processes, enabling users to simplify, accelerate and improve the accuracy of manual and repetitive tasks. Software robots drive the user interface of third party applications like humans. Typical activities include data entry, testing, content migration and legacy application integration.
  • Autonomous vehicles: The capabilities of autonomous vehicles, such as Google’s self-driving cars, using sensors and artificial intelligence to automate transportation, are progressing rapidly with applications in many sectors. We are now seeing fully functional autonomous vehicles being tested on our roads and in a decade they may start replacing manual driving all together.
  • Household appliances: Nest’s thermostat and iRobot’s robotic vacuum cleaner are examples of how we’re seeing an increased use of automation and robotics in the home. Common household tasks such as cleaning or folding laundry are extremely difficult for machines to perform and require exceptionally complex software algorithms. But recent advances driven by A.I. are now enabling robots to learn certain tasks by themselves and teach each other what they have learnt.
  • Autonomous Drones: Increasingly smart and autonomous drones are being tested in many industries. Computer scientists and artificial intelligence experts at MIT have created a lightweight, quick thinking, autonomous drone that can dodge and dive its way around obstacles while flying at 30mph. The possibilities for use are almost endless. Drones are ideal for monitoring remote or dangerous locations, such as surveilling crops or landscape fires.

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