In the spotlight: “Who is business?” Focus on the next generation.
Robotisation is creating a wealth of completely new options for the manufacturing industry and paving the way for Swiss companies to compete more effectively in today’s globalised economy. So-called collaborative robots or cobots are playing a key role in this development. Cobots interact with humans, learn, eliminate errors and give both human workers and the companies they work for more flexibility and unprecedented room for manoeuvre. Cobots represent a new generation of industrial robots and are challenging manufacturers to rethink the way they go about their business.
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Director, Digital Operations Impact Center, PwC Europe
Everyone is talking about Industry 4.0. But who knows what it actually means? And who is making it happen? The level of digitisation maturity varies widely from manufacturer to manufacturer (figure 1). The industrial sector is a long way from exhausting the total potential of digitisation.
It is interesting to note that the most popular technologies being implemented in the digital factory today, and even those most likely to be planned for the next five years, drive increases in efficiency that still rely on the traditional model of the assembly line pioneered by Henry Ford back in 1913. These technologies will only reveal their true potential once companies completely rethink that process.
The image of industrial robots as fixed machines tirelessly repeating a few moves is passé. Cobots (see box) are going places that human workers simply cannot go without great risk to safety, and doing things such as soldering microchips with great dexterity.
Orwellian visions of the ‘lights-out’ factory where robots toil alone in the dark 24/7 have not materialised yet; successfully integrating automation technology in manufacturing operations while meeting the workforce’s needs to make that happen is much easier said than done. Nevertheless, there should be no doubt that we are on the way to greater automation. There are some areas where human employees are already working hand in hand with cobots. In the future, this will be the rule rather than the exception.
Until recently, the focus of robotics automation was on ‘lights-out’ operations, high volume and high throughput. But now there seems to be a paradigm shift from wanting robots-only operations to engineering production done by humans working alongside robots. That is where so-called collaborative robots or cobots are coming into the game. We have to consider the value and safety of humans and craftsmanship, and the understanding of customers, materials and processes – all of which are core parts of the factory’s value creation.
Cobots are collaborative robots that work hand in hand with humans. They are particularly good for small-lot production. While they are set up to work more slowly than conventional robots for safety reasons, this does not matter, as cobots tailor their speed to match their human co-workers and are designed for use in manufacturing environments where people are needed, for example for visual checks or work involving fine motor skills. Typical areas of deployment are packaging, co-packaging and assembly, and in the watchmaking and medical technology industries.
Cobots go far beyond just performing pre-programmed tasks. Workers can ‘train’ these robots through interactions, without the need for time-intensive programming, simply by repeating activities. The latest generation of cobots are able to learn, are very flexible, and can be moved from one workspace to another. They are easy to program, and quick and straightforward to reprogram.
The value added by robot technology goes way beyond mere reductions in labour costs. Robotics is part of a wave of new technologies, including 3D printing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), opening new paths of production, real-time machine performance monitoring and preventive maintenance. Working in conjunction with other technologies, robotics adds a new set of values, including producing higher-quality products with more innovative designs, shortening delivery cycles, introducing flexibility (just-in-time assembly) and customisation (lot-of-one production).
Smart digital factories connect and optimise equipment and materials, workers and processes to increase productivity and eliminate errors. They revolve around collaboration between people and machines. Successful companies are deploying cobots to streamline their processes and enable their employees to work more quickly. All of this facilitates customer centricity and local-for-local production. There is little doubt that the work environment in the digital factory will change radically. Setting up a smart factory not only requires the implementation of new technologies; it also means finding, hiring and training workers with the necessary digital skills.
Switzerland has a long tradition of industrialisation. Take the textile industry: this country ventured to take the first steps towards automation long before others, and even back then there were fears that jobs would be lost.
Now Switzerland is neck and neck with other European countries in terms of industrial robotics. New automation technologies are just being implemented, but are still in their infancy. Interestingly, the prevailing corporate culture in Switzerland makes the concept of cobots a very good match.
Cobots are touch-sensitive, so humans can work with them without the need for a cage or barriers for protection. On the contrary, cobots are there to assist their co-workers or do heavy work such as lifting on their behalf. This makes human workers more flexible and gives them the freedom to add value in other places. If cobots are equipped with artificial intelligence to enable them to develop and learn from their experience, they free up humans to do more highly qualified work, making them more flexible and productive.
Not only that, but the latest generation of cobots are relatively inexpensive, meaning that even small and medium-sized companies can invest in certain automation technologies and simply build them into their existing production processes. Robotics are part of a larger network of digitally-connected operations made possible by Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology. Take the example of GM, which has connected at least one quarter – or 30,000 – of its robots to the internet and collects performance data that yields information that can be used for preventive maintenance. This has helped the automaker reduce breakdowns and assembly line disruptions.
Manufacturers are finding value not only in increased efficiency, but also from data captured in other parts of the operation including materials, parts, components, labour and workflow records. When aggregated with other data (customer, financial, environmental, etc.), such data can serve as the basis for insights and actions.
In tandem with 3D printing, robotics is paving the way for a new era of product personalisation. To manufacture on a lot-of-one basis, companies have to accelerate set-up times to be able to individualise orders and further reduce the production cycle of a product, and they have to make their production processes quicker and more flexible. It is therefore not surprising that introducing flexible robotics makes increasing sense as a means of remaining competitive.
Adopting robotic automation can introduce a new layer of risk and liability considerations. For example, in the event of accidents connected with robotics systems (such as accidents caused by malfunctioning hardware, software, communications or misuse by a human), it is important to ascertain which party is responsible and liable.
Another workforce consideration is data privacy: especially in the light of the EU’s new GDPR. Companies are under increasing scrutiny and pressure to protect personal data that may be captured by robotics systems (for example via cameras, microphone and sensors). They have to be equally mindful of relevant labour laws that may apply in the event that workers are replaced by robots.
The good news is that robots cannot do everything. That is why ‘lights-out’ factories have not happened. In the robot-centric approach, automation limits the interaction between humans and robots by placing robots in cages or behind other barriers. The broad capabilities of cobots not only smooth out this interaction, but also encourage the innovation and creativity of human workers from the bottom up. People who are experts in a particular field have time to come up with new ideas for optimising the process, while cobots are happy to take over the repetitive, monotonous and heavy work.
Any new advanced manufacturing technology requires a well-informed and scalable strategy. Robotic automation can be a considerable investment. There are three main areas new adopters (and those expanding their current adoption) would do well to think through before committing to investments in time and capital:
Here are some questions which will help you come up with a realistic and accurate estimate of the return on your investment (ROI):
Numerous benefits are touted for robotics – including speedy ROI rates, plug-and-play capabilities and ease of ‘training’, to name but a few. But no matter how simply a new technology may be described, all adopters need to ask themselves the same question: how ready are we to incorporate the technology into our operations? To what extent do our operations have modern automated systems in place?
A few areas of skill and demonstrated experience in managing automated systems – and robotics specifically – include:
The types of robots and the range of capabilities are ever-expanding, with more and more manufacturers looking to robot functionality that goes far beyond just heavy lifting or welding car bodies. Increasingly, robots are enlisted for complex, sophisticated tasks. They are fitted with greater sensory abilities – and artificial intelligence – via cameras, vision recognition, motion and thermal sensors and software driving greater flexibility, learnability, dexterity, precision and autonomy.
The growing lists of tasks assigned to robots is wide and varied. So, it is essential to identify what can be automated, and why. Taking an inventory of all processes that are repetitive, difficult (or even dangerous or impossible) is an important first step in identifying prime candidates for automation. Human skills which are in short supply (or may be more difficult to secure in the future) are also prime candidates. It is also important to consider which processes might be considered unattractive (i.e. manual labour) to a new generation of employees.
The technology for collaborative workspaces including cobots is available and should be put to profitable use. Anyone ducking the issue with arguments that it threatens jobs is merely increasing the risk that jobs will indeed be lost. Manufacturers have never been averse to adopting automation technology – from Henry Ford’s mass-production assembly lines to the deployment of industrial robotics more than four decades ago. More recently, industrial products manufacturers have also been early adopters of a wide range of advanced manufacturing technologies. So, let’s harness these new possibilities to the benefit of manufacturing in Switzerland!