How has robotics transformed industrial automation?
Flexibility and scalability are the two main advantages of robots. They can easily adapt to changes in product, volume and other layout changes in facilities. Other plus points of robotics are improved space utilisation and safety. Tedious tasks, such as packaging, which involve high levels of repeatability and speeds are better handled by robots. This also prevents repetitive motion injuries. Integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), robotic vision
systems, and other Industry 4.0 technologies will further reinforce these advantages as robots get smarter.
Do you think 100% transformation of manufacturing processes from traditional to automated is possible? Will it hamper the labour force?
A 2015 McKinsey report noted that 64% of working hours of a pool representing 80% of the global manufacturing workforce can be automated. This is not surprising considering the consistent output quality that automation delivers and the human labour it frees from hazardous areas and non-ergonomic tasks. Manual processes also involve a higher degree of risk to the labour force, prompting companies to opt for automation processes that can ensure that tasks can be carried out in a manner that is error-free and safe.
On the employment front, I don’t think it will hamper the labour force. Over the years I’ve seen that when a process is automated, it leads to a change of skillsets. Automation also is normally focused on tasks that are either repetitive, hazardous or where the biological load on the product is to be limited. The increasing demand for quality products also makes a case for automation. This is where robotics and automation come in handy, saving organisations from the entire hassle.
Automation is already creating fresh jobs that require upgraded skills. As long as upskilling is feasible, automation is a solution, not a problem. Besides, automation frees up humans for value-added tasks such as R&D and process control.
Which manufacturing industries do you think have the most potential to embrace automation?
As mentioned earlier, manufacturing is only second to accommodation and food service in terms of automation potential. Automation holds natural advantage over manual labour for hazardous, repetitive, and complex operations such as welding, packaging, industrial adhesive dispensing, and assembly lines. This is why the automobile, consumer electronics, chemicals, plastics, and metal & machinery industries hold a large automation potential.
What are the upcoming trends in robotics that manufacturers need to look out for?
Robots are taking over operations earlier handled by conventional machines. We recently replaced such machines with robots for root-end machining of wind turbine blades. In the not-to-distant future, AI, ML, connectivity, and vision systems will enable robots to make fast and intelligent decisions on their own when responding to unexpected scenarios.
Robots will be increasingly modular with software being their central component. Smart and interchangeable robot modules will be customisable for numerous applications. They will also be easy to install, configure, and integrate. Mass customisation is, of course, one of the principal features of Industry 4.0. AI will make human-robot interactions more sophisticated, a phenomenon referred to as Industry 5.0 or collaboration.
Do you think we are skilled enough to adopt industrial automation or we need to upgrade in that area?
With automation getting smarter, operators will find it simpler to handle them. Training courses for the same are short-duration ones. Provided the manual-to-automated or automated-to-autonomous process is correctly mapped, skilled technicians should not be in short supply.
What major transformations do you think you will see in the manufacturing industries in a decade?
Manufacturing will be more data-driven than before. As Industry 4.0 technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Virtual Reality (VR), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), predictive data analytics, Augmented Reality (AR), get more sophisticated, manufacturing will also move from automation to autonomous. The data-driven model will not only streamline manufacturing processes but also the supply chain thereby improving resource utilisation and associated efficiencies.
What automation challenges do we need to be ready for in the coming future?
As technology unleashes the ever-improving capabilities of automation, customers will demand solutions with the least cost and footprint that deliver high throughput. And, they will ask for this with minimal delivery durations. Engineers have their tasks cut out when balancing these requirements.
Any advice you would like to give to young manufacturers?
Take a holistic view of things over the long term. This applies to both – manufacturers looking to automate & companies looking to provide them with automation solutions. Piecemeal and short-sighted solutions escalate expenses over time while also failing to optimise quality, productivity, safety, and resource utilisation.