The manufacturing industry is an important driver for economies and is at crossroads of impending change. It provides a lifeline to local economies and sustains SMEs, which are major drivers in terms of both economic value add as well as employment. Globalisation, along with digitalisation, has set in motion irreversible changes to everything we see, touch, experience and consume. The manufacturing industry is no exception. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the difficulties of anything physical – from forced shut down of factories to challenges of having people to man operations to the logistical difficulty of moving things around, both raw materials & finished goods. It has brought to the surface the deep flaws in current production systems and the concentrated supply chains they depend on.
Changing consumer demand and behaviour is another major driver for manufacturing to change. We are in the era of ‘experience’ economy, where the product is the experience and consumers are demanding personalised products, proliferating growing niches even further. These behavioural changes are irreversible, and it is a challenge and an opportunity for manufacturing enterprises. In order to survive and thrive in the digital on-demand economy, they have to reimagine work & reinvent their production methods & processes. Robotics, IIoT and rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and humanrobot interaction are poised to play an important role in shaping future production landscapes – making them adaptive, flexible and more efficient. Enterprises that embrace these changes and seize the opportunity to reinvent their manufacturing will be in a vantage position to reap the benefits.
Today, we can imagine and design products with unlimited variety for the ever-growing market niches. But it is challenging to produce them – on-demand, in-variety and in-required volumes, profitably, with either traditional automation or manual only processes. There has not been much change since the invention of the assembly line over 100 years ago. Industrial robots have helped to make the same assembly line and mass production even more efficient. But only data gleaned from rigid line production will not take it any further.
It calls for production processes that are aligned with constantly changing demands – flexible, adaptive and data-driven. There cannot be a major transformation of manufacturing without SMEs embracing the change.
Importance of integrated design & manufacturing
This new paradigm demands a grounds-up involved product development where production is deeply connected with product design & factories that are closer to consumption and are flexible & adaptive to changes and are resilient against pure manual processes. It portends design modularisation, where the skeletal production happens backend and assembly is taken to where the demand is, and in the future, where they are sold right in front of the customers. We can clearly see that the electrification of mobility is driving the same level of modularisation as has been seen with personal computers. Plug into the ecosystem where robotic automation can be defined right from the construction process embedded in the digital designs. SMEs can become more competitive as they can seamlessly merge their manufacturing to the design requirement and provide viable alternatives for the supply chain to tap into.
Increasing the levels of education and higher levels of general awareness & connectivity makes dull, dirty and dangerous jobs have fewer takers. Increasing white collarisation of factory jobs makes it hard to find manual resources for the low-end jobs as the population becomes more and more aspirational. The repetitive and labour-intensive jobs are in constant shortage of willing workers.
The human-in-the-loop robotics
People are central to the success of manufacturing enterprises. They make it inventive and bring human touch & creativity to the products they make. They are relieved from repetitive work to focus on more essential and creative endeavours that add to enterprise competitiveness. They need automation technology that augments and not replace them. Collaborative robotic automation is a step in the right direction.
This is Robotics 2.0 that takes humans in the loop, balancing human expertise and creativity with robotic precision & productivity. It turns production ‘outside-in,’ i.e., responsive and resilient to sudden demand changes and ‘inside-out’ for enterprises to unlock new & profitable business models to thrive in the on-demand economy, making them flexible, adaptive & efficient.
Importance of human-robot interfaces & unstructured work
AI and machine vision are making impressive strides, but in the foreseeable future, humans are what drive them, and their primacy cannot be understated. They will be the teachers sharing their tacit knowledge and experience to teach these robots & evolve to become better collaborative partners, i.e., help them learn from their experience through well-designed human-robot interfaces. Technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and conversational interfaces will only enhance this communication process even better leading to more nuanced collaboration between humans & robots.
Human-robot interfaces should enable people to work like they have always been used to, and the no-code interaction paradigms should make it easy for people to collaborate happenstance with robots. They enable productive collaboration where robots have essential autonomy to perceive human presence and are mindful about their safety.
Rapid advances in force sensing, position sensing and machine vision combined with AI make it possible for robots to work in unstructured environments. They bring many advantages, such as no calibration for the life of the robots, self-alignment and flexible mounting positions without the need to re-setup reference points. Robots are able to understand the context in which they are working, so they adjust to any unstructured work without requiring precision fixtures or other expensive and time-consuming infrastructure. They are easily movable & immediately understand their next contexts and get into action immediately, minimising changeover time. They take away the tedium of setup & programming and also dependence on external integrators. The robots adapt to process variations, bringing in new levels of in-process quality control, reducing downstream investments and time of additional process steps. This greatly complements the innate human ability to innovate and create. The robot becomes a sentient worker–friendly, sympathetic and intuitive to work with. The virtuous interaction would set the beneficial teach-learn-teach paradigm in motion to symbiotically improve and innovate work.
Visibility & data-driven workflows
Robots in manufacturing have a far-reaching effect. They provide complete visibility and the effect of quantified production processes, driving even further productivity and fficiency gains. They will more than make up for the shift from line production to matrixed flexible production.
Today, the control functions are intuitive, and cobots can be physically handled – safely – to train and be teachable. The virtual twin makes virtual prove-outs easy and inexpensive. They can be easily interfaced with product development and design processes, bringing design & manufacturing ever closer, allowing a grounds-up approach that deeply incorporates manufacturing processes into product design. The virtual twin enables designers to experiment with different ways of building their product even before anything is really built – the same process can be easily replicated into the physical world as the physical robot will imbibe the learning that its virtual twin has already experienced.
The cobots can be highly connected and are easily networked. They act as the eyes & ears of process efficiency and provide early warning signs of inefficiencies creeping in and possible resolutions. They can be incorporated into the larger enterprise automation solution, giving multiple layers of manufacturing efficiency & economy.
They also allow ‘selective’ automation. A no-code user interface goes a long way in helping keep the system interoperable and flexible. An SME is typically limited to large up-front capital investments. Cobots help an SME scale automation as the SME grows. They provide a vision and an adaptive roadmap for the SME to grow and scale its effectiveness as the business expands.
The future of human-robot collaboration
Together, the above technological advances will enable robots towards more sustainable and profitable business models for businesses. Any new technology will require a learning curve as it involves changes in both long-established processes and human behaviour. But enterprises have to begin now if they want to see themselves in pole positions. Collaborative automation that enables the interplay of humans and robots makes the best of both worlds, creating new adaptive possibilities and profitable new business models for enterprises.