Interconnectivity, wireless devices and mobile applications for manufacturers have been buzzwords for the industry for the past few years. Factories continue to innovate with industrial-sized Ethernet and wireless capabilities within plants. In 2015, the newest trend involves collaborative robotics with respect to automation technology. This concept may revolutionize manufacturing for decades as robots become more even prevalent in factories.
Dave Greenfield, writing for Automation World, notes that more investment capital went towards robotics companies in 2014 than ever before. GE Ventures, Goldman Sachs and Bezos Expeditions spent more than $26 million to fund Rethink Robotics due to the company's "market potential" for collaborative robotics. This brand of automation technology means more flexibility, seamless projects and better variable environments for manufacturers.
Collaborative robotics works by producing robots capable of doing many different types of tasks. This differs from traditional manufacturing methods that need downtime to switch machines in fixed production lines. Adaptable robots, some of them similar to humanoid movements, can reduce downtime to a fraction of what it takes to switch out machinery. Less downtime means fewer paid staff needed to replace machinery on the line and more time spent making products. This technology also increases profits over the long term.
Recent investments in collaborative robotics exceed industry predictions. From 2008 to 2013, robots on assembly lines and packaging lines more than tripled. As many as 82 percent of manufacturers polled in a 2014 Trends in Robotics Market Assessment report state they will invest in more robotic technology on the plant floor.
Schneider Electric, in Columbia, Missouri, uses a Baxter robot from Rethink Robotics as a multi-use collaborative robotics tool. Baxter can load gears into a parts washer on one line and then move to another line to test circuit breakers. These robots work alongside humans, and they often complete precise tasks that may take humans longer to accomplish. When you consider that these robots cannot get hurt and do not get sick, staff time saved on these projects increases several times.
Robots can be used to lift heavy objects quickly and efficiently. The FDA has approved robots that clean themselves to prevent food particle build-up. This creates more sanitary conditions for food processing and also saves staff time needed to clean machines on a regular basis.
In 2014, Lowe's premiered customer service robots to help consumers find products in the store. The wheeled machines use 3-D cameras to scan and identify items and even lead customers to the correct aisle. These robots may replace human workers in some stores, which is cost-effective over the long-term since robots do not need sick leave or family leave. Instead of hiring more in-store employees, Lowe's may need more software engineers and technicians to repair robots.
Human workers do not need to worry about complete replacement. Amazon's heavy-lifting robots, 16-inch-tall wheeled machines used in warehouses since July 2014, actually created more hiring due to greater demand. The warehouse robots increased efficiency and decreased shipping times, which led to happier customers and more repeat business.
Thus far, many collaborative robotics projects fulfill behind-the-scenes missions of large manufacturers. Robots may not have pervaded into customer service jobs just yet, but that time may be coming if factory robots, rather than flesh-and-blood humans, become the norm on the plant floor in the next five years.
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