I recently presented at an event where leaders of several of the world’s largest manufacturers gathered. Everyone agreed that manufacturing is undergoing transformational change. No one agreed though how, when and where to get started and what it will take to achieve the promise of Industry 4.0 – where machines are connected and smart, efficiency and productivity are optimized, and manufacturing sets the new standard for best practices in harnessing innovation.
As leaders develop their strategic roadmaps and dig into pilot projects, robots are playing a key role in bringing together man and machine. Today’s smart, collaborative robots are so much more than machines for increasing the productivity of repetitive tasks and doing jobs too dangerous for people. These robots are engines for process innovation, quality improvement and the agility needed to accelerate the journey to successful implementation of the Industry 4.0 vision.
When Robots Think More Like Humans, Everything Changes
I’ve written about the ways in which robots are able to sense and respond like we do and how robots are moving more toward dealing with variability like we do. Where robots are heading now is toward the ability to engage with their environments, tasks and people in the same ways the people do.
Several innovations are shaping up to move robots from simply working for humans to actually working with them. It’s an important distinction. Think about what a person needs to be able to do in order to perform their job in a manufacturing operation. Broadly speaking it comes down to having the answers to four questions:
- What do you want me to do?
- How am I doing?
- How can I do better?
- How can I help improve how we perform the task?
Advances in software enable robots to act on the answers to these questions – just as a human would – constantly working to figure out what is going on, what is wanted, and make smart recommendations seamlessly to modify what they are doing so they can do it better.
Industry 4.0: Robots that Know Things
Robots know things today. Tomorrow they will know more.
Today, smart collaborative robots are able to tackle different tasks with ease when a person accesses the stored parameters for the work in order for the robot to move on to the next task. Soon, with advanced vision systems, robot-generated insight shared through cloud robotics, object and application recognition, robots will be able to enter a workspace and know – based on the equipment present – what needs to be done. Using its own experience and calling on the experiences of robot “colleagues,” these robots will begin the task without human intervention. Just as a person who has been trained would do.
One way to think about this robot knowledge is as the common understanding that humans bring to their world every day. Just as a human recognizes a screwdriver and knows how to use it based on that recognition, so too will robots “know” what a tool is and how to use it. A robot “watching” a human pack a box will recognize the task. Tapping into its own experiences with the task or perhaps the shared experience of others, the robot will know how to perform the task. Ultimately, the robot will be able to make recommendations based on that ‘common’ sense of how to improve the performance of the task.
For their manufacturing employers, these robots will provide metrics for world-class manufacturing operations such as efficiency and productivity of a work cell, error reporting, quality reporting and basic analysis. They will make it possible for manufacturers to be more adaptive to changing market conditions and improve performance in the work cell and at the facility level. Ultimately, robots will improve global operations with the ability to leverage robot-generated insight at scale.
When we talk with manufacturers about Industry 4.0, they are excited by the vision – automation that can move operations toward more agility and responsiveness. It’s time to capture that energy and act as the pace of innovation picks up. Manufacturers who don’t move quickly to put that asset to work will be left behind.