From IoT to 5G and artificial intelligence, we’re already seeing multiple advanced digital technologies converge, drawing the physical and digital worlds ever closer. The impact of this convergence will be felt most acutely in industry; revolutionising the way we design, plan, operate or deliver consumer facing products and services. Paul Ceely, Director of Technology Strategy, Digital Catapult explains.
Among other trends in the cyber-physical world – like the metaverse, or digital twins – the rise of remote and autonomous machines is a trend manufacturing businesses will need to take note of: in fact, Digital Catapult pinpointed robots and autonomous machines as a key trend for 2022 – with the projected global market size for robotics by 2026 coming in at a staggering £53.8bn.
While the most well-known example of an autonomous system is a so-dubbed ‘self-driving’ vehicle, the pandemic has led to increasing interest in advanced digital technology enabled autonomous machines for many other parts of the economy – the manufacturing sector being one.
Where does the hype and excitement stop, and when will the impact begin? What are the biggest challenges to the deployment of robotics and autonomous systems?
Doing the heavy lifting for workers
The ability for robotics and autonomous systems to assist human workers on the shop floor and in the factory is more than just hype – it’s already being realised across the UK and beyond.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies are providing the power for automated systems, robotics and cobots (robots that can learn multiple tasks to assist humans) to help reduce cycle time, labour time and quality errors. On a basic level, robots can even assist humans with ‘heavy lifting’ – as is becoming common in countries with an ageing population, like Japan.
The main benefits of robots and autonomous machines in factory environments is that they are able to conduct the mundane, repetitive, physically demanding or even dangerous tasks that humans would otherwise have to do – for example, National Grid’s work with Boston Dynamics, using robots for monitoring a hazardous environment. This not only protects worker safety, but allows them to carry out better quality work by being more productive on the shop floor.
Exacerbated by the pandemic, we’re also seeing a rise in manufacturers conducting work at a distance using a mixture of immersive technologies, 5G and robotics. Ford, for example, is just one company using immersive headsets and tools like the Microsoft Hololens to carry out remote meetings and training at a distance for their engineers.
Automating logistics and monitoring supply
Although there are emerging signs of supply issues easing, the challenges experienced over the last two years – from staffing to parts shortages – have exposed systemic inadequacies in the way supply chains are run that cannot be ignored. Robotics and autonomous machines have the potential to at least alleviate some of this pressure, particularly in regard to labour shortages.
We’re not quite at a stage where this is commonplace, but thanks to ongoing research and development, in the longer term, we could see autonomous trucks or automated drones making deliveries to both urban and remote areas. At the moment, for example, a trial at the Nissan factory in Sunderland is testing 5G’s ability to boost productivity through autonomous trucks to move parts.
And, autonomous robots can help to test, sort, inspect and build; organisations like Ocado are already using autonomous machines to support picking and packing processes, and we will see these moving outside of controlled warehouses, for example, autonomous logistics information systems could carry out scans of product deliveries.
Tackling wasted materials, emissions and money
With the human population generating around 2.12 billion tonnes of waste every single day, the effective use of automation to better manage resources and relieve the effects of the waste epidemic on our planet is critical. And, while waste management in the manufacturing sectors has increased by 35% since 2011, there is still work to be done.
Machine intelligence, artificial intelligence and computer vision is allowing for the effective use of robots to identify, tag and sort large waste flows. There are also early examples of intelligent bins and containers, which can communicate with disposal systems or even drop off waste at a disposal site, that are growing in sophistication. By exploring technology-led waste management solutions like these, manufacturing leaders will not only benefit from a clean conscience, but ultimately, deeper pockets.
Skills and ethics
At a time of seemingly never-ending skills shortages and recruitment challenges, these advanced technologies represent a tremendous opportunity for helping train up and assist employees in their day-to-day jobs, as well as freeing up valuable time for employees – allowing them to focus on improving their quality of work.
That said, there are evidently still barriers to full scale robotic autonomy being achieved. Developing a robot or autonomous system that can cope with a number of variables, such as fluid or ever-changing environmental conditions – e.g., changing light, temperature, etc – is technically challenging, and many autonomous systems require long periods of training on data streams. Autonomous systems are also built to tackle a certain task – a ‘generalist’ robot with dozens of successful use cases in manufacturing has yet to be developed.
Meanwhile, these systems must be developed in a human-centric manner, with responsible and ethical use of technology at the front of mind. This means they need to be built with the benefits to employees and wider stakeholders as a top priority, and with as close to an unbiased input as possible in the development stage. This requires careful coordination and consensus across industry, which is proving a challenge to reach. For these reasons, it’s critical that these systems have diverse input when developed, and humans must remain involved in the key decision-making and operational processes to some degree.
The future of remote and autonomous machines
The opportunities for autonomous machines and robots to respond to some of the biggest challenges we’re facing as a society at the moment – whether economic or social – are endless. However, as the need for automation grows exponentially, we must ensure that we are working to improve accuracy, reliability, and security for these machines, and they fit harmoniously in the environment with the workers and neighbours, particularly if they are operated remotely.
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