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7 Misconceptions About the Future of Robotics in Manufacturing

June 07, 2016 by Mary-Kerstin Hassiotis

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In September 2015, The Boston Consulting Group predicted that investment in advanced robotics will increase to around 10 percent annually (up from 2-3 percent today) over the next decade – a direct result of corporations beginning to realize the positive economic implications of sophisticated automation. BCG also projected that, across select industries, more than 40 percent of manufacturing tasks will be completed by robots by 2025. 

Despite such bold stats, not all manufacturers are convinced that automation is the right answer. While some of their concerns are valid, misconceptions run rampant. In this article, we'll address (and attempt to debunk) seven common myths about the future of robotics in manufacturing.

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1 |  Robots are our job-stealing enemies

Forget the zombie apocalypse – the robot apocalypse is what you should be prepping for (but don't worry, Google's got your back). Although a robot uprising is unlikely, factory workers worldwide do fear losing their jobs to a pseudo-army of robots. A common perception is that a workforce is comprised either of humans or robots, while the reality is a mix of the two. 

Collaborative robots (cobots) are trained to operate alongside, and assist, workers. Assigning repetitive jobs to robots increases speed and consistency while reducing risks of human error, ultimately boosting productivity. This allows factory workers to take on more involved or creative tasks.

Suggested Reading: Yes, the robots will steal our jobs. And that's fine. 

2 |  Robots aren't worth the cost

Thanks to technological advancements, booming venture capital and the phenomenon of crowdfunding, robots are becoming less expensive and more accessible to smaller companies. For many industries, this is the first time robotics seem to make sense from a cost standpoint. Universal-Robots-payback

Although robots are still a significant investment, their payback period can be surprisingly brief. For example, Universal Robots touts on their site that "a collaborative robot arm from Universal Robots can achieve payback in as little as 195 days (on average)." That's just slightly more than 6 months! Not too bad for an asset that could be a major game-changer in your production output and overall efficiency. 

3 |  Robots only make sense for mass production

The widespread fallacy that high-volume, mass production is the only manufacturing model worthy of robotics adoption deters smaller facilities from even considering the idea. While most industrial robots are still found in automotive manufacturing plants, the newest generation of robots can perform a wide range of even the most meticulous tasks.

Here's what small- and medium-sized manufacturers need to know: collaborative robots are now more versatile, affordable and user-friendly than ever before. From packing boxes to tediously assembling circuit boards, they can perform a variety of functions to enhance productivity in any facility. Of course, each company has its own needs, but the potential ROI of adopting such technology should be realitively easy to calculate. Expect to see a cobot boom among small- and medium-sized companies over the next decade.

4 |  Robots are too difficult to program 

While there is some degree of truth to this statement (especially if you're thinking of old-school industrial robots), a new wave of robots is taking over the market, and programmability is a key factor in their design. Some can be programmed via smartphone or tablet in less time than it takes to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture. Seems manageable, right? Take Rethink Robotics' Sawyer model, for instance. As you'll see in the video below, this cobot is quick to set up and adapt to its new environment.

5 |  Robots don't easily integrate into existing processes

Chances are if you're currently using minimal automation in your manufacturing processes, integrating robots will seem super intimidating. The good news is that today's collaborative robots are smart and flexible, able to learn quickly and adapt to changes just like factory workers do.

Cobots are an ideal solution for monotonous tasks that are dull and tiresome for people, yet challenging to automate with traditional machinery that lacks the dexterity of cobots. Begin with one robot and one task. Ramping up slowly will make the switch less painful.

6 |  Robots pose a safety threat to workers 

Unlike their archaic ancestors, robots of 2016 are becoming increasingly safer and more capable of working alongside humans. The robots of yesteryear were sequestered behind cages or other physical restraints. Today, these material barriers have been replaced by sensors, cameras, sonar and RFID technologies. Robots are essentially able to "see" their human coworkers and avoid them to create a secure environment. 

Smart robots can issue warnings when a worker comes within a certain distance of the machine and come to a complete stop if the person gets too close. Some can be programmed to navigate around people and continue working at a safe distance.

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Kuka Intelligent Industrial Work Assistant (IIWA)

7 |  Robots can outsmart and outperform humans

Sure, robots are more capable of performing certain tasks and producing consistent results, but artifical intelligence (AI) development has not reached the point of outsmarting humankind (assuming Watson doesn't count). This is mainly due to a lack of sophisticated consciousness that's challenging to replicate in machine learning. When it comes to manual performance, most robots still have trouble handling soft or slack materials like fabric, which explains why we're still patiently awaiting our laundry-folding robot companions.

So, here's the bottom line: we're safe. For now. But, apparently 90% of computer scientists believe machines will outsmart humans by 2075 (source). That gives us 59 years to come up with a plan........

Further Reading:
The Future of Virtual Reality (VR) in Manuf.
3 Ways Wearables Are Reshaping the Supply Chain
5 Ways the Internet of Things (IoT) is Transforming Manuf.
3 IoT Challenges That Cannot Be Ignored
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Posted by Mary-Kerstin Hassiotis

Mary-Kerstin, also known as MK, worked with East West Manufacturing for over 4 years before leaving to launch her own business. She joined the marketing team in 2015 as content writer after managing East West's international logistics for 2 years. She is a proud graduate of the University of Georgia.

Topics: Technology, Manufacturing

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