Collaborative robots typically provide productivity boosts to the human workforce because they allow employees to stop engaging in so many repetitive or boring tasks, and create opportunities for them to do more rewarding work. That will continue, but manufacturers also may begin to view cobots as tools for reducing downtime due to malfunction.

5 Ways Robotics Will Drive Automation Further

Jan. 27, 2020
In 2020, there are plenty of opportunities for increased productivity. Robots' capabilities are expanding, and more industries recognize it's time to incorporate them to their workflows.

Industrial robotics have already upended ways of doing business, and that progress should continue through 2020 and beyond. However, continual improvements must occur for any technology — including industrial robotics— to continue asserting dominance. As such, there are several developments in robotics that businesses should be alert to, and to anticipate, in the year ahead.

1. Cobots reducing downtime — The collaborative robots — cobots — that manufacturers have adopted typically boost productivity among the human workforce. They allow the employees to stop engaging in so many repetitive or boring tasks, and to have opportunities for more rewarding work. Those benefits will continue this year, but business leaders also may begin to view cobots as tools for reducing downtime due to malfunction.

In January, OMRON exhibited a new cobot at CES 2020 that's part of the i4 SCARA series. It self-diagnoses problems with the robot functions and communicates with humans to inform them of necessary routine maintenance, or urgent repair calls. Many industrial sensors give predictive maintenance capabilities to industrial machines, but it is a relatively new concept to have cobots alert humans before they break down.

Unexpected shutdowns can cost thousands of dollars per minute, depending on factors like the average output at the facility, the length of the stoppage, and the value of the created product. If manufacturers start to see that smarter cobots could lessen downtime, they may be particularly eager to invest in them.

2. More customer-facing industrial robots — Many consumers benefit from industrial robots, even if they don't realize it. That's because top e-commerce brands rely heavily on them for help with picking and packing orders in massive warehouses. During 2020, companies may start bringing industrial robots closer to the people, even if those individuals never go inside a warehouse.

At one Huawei outlet in China, people can buy things without ever interacting with salespeople, and it's all because of two robotic arms that give customers their goods. Individuals either can reserve products online or choose their desired items after arriving at the retail store. The building is cylindrical and has compartments holding different categories of Huawei products.

The robots operate behind bulletproof glass to locate a customer's item and deliver it to him. The manufacturer of the robotic arms usually makes them for industrial settings, like warehouses, but this example shows that more business could identify ways for industrial robots to operate in full view of customers.

n the case of the Huawei store, people can go there and get some of the top items sold by the brand. Only the largest merchandise items are not included, due to concerns about pick-and-place sizes and weights. A lot depends on whether this new store attempt is ultimately profitable for Huawei. If it is, and people are on board with buying products in stores that don't employ humans, more brands may try this approach.

3. Robots in construction — The construction industry was not an early adopter of industrial robots. However, the prevalence of those machines will rise during 2020, and that increase likely will continue even longer.

Construction site robotics can be found on the ground and in the air. For example, drones can assist with things like site surveys. Opportunities also are ripe for robots that get things done at ground level. KEWAZO is a company that wants to improve construction-industry logistics via robotics and data analysis: It has a robot that achieves a 33% reduction in labor costs associated with assembling scaffolding.

Construction business leaders know how crucial it is to finish projects on time and under budget. Failing to do those things could make it harder for businesses to win bids and get new work. Industrial robots could cause noticeable upticks in both efficiency and cost savings. As more companies in the construction sector experiment with using robots and get favorable results, others will follow suit.

4. More versatile robots — It's not difficult to see how robots have progressed over time. They were initially confined behind cages that kept the massive machines away from humans. Once cobots emerged, people saw that robots and people could work together safely.

A report from ABI Research shows that yet another evolution will occur, and individuals likely will start to see the signs of it this year.

Mobile robots will begin to overtake traditional industrial robotics by 2022, and businesses will depend on them for more purposes than they do currently. Now, the most popular reason to use mobile robots is to transport materials in the supply chain, the ABI Research report clarified. However, as mobile robotics sector gain momentum, businesses will investigate other practical use cases.

The information from ABI Research also anticipated tremendous growth across all industrial robotics segments. The forecast expects a total market value of $277 billion by 2030. As such, people will see companies ramp up their investments in all kinds of industrial robots while showing a particular eagerness to purchase, or at least consider, mobile robots.

5. Mainstream robots with AI — Many industrial robots already have artificial intelligence (AI) components. Recently, when The Robot Report asked several experts in the robotics space to give their predictions for 2020, several mentioned that AI would bring industrial robots to their next level this year.

They brought up matters like larger AI deployments causing companies to demand that their vendors apply AI to particular problem-solving-based needs, such as to help with visual inspections. Another topic brought up was that AI would let customers in industrial sectors build end-to-end solutions in-house, and use their existing data to teach the robots.

If these predictions come true, more businesses will be building AI components into their products because they'll realize that doing so is necessary to remain competitive. Consequently, customers will start to see that purchasing an industrial robot with AI capability is a budget-pleasing option to drive new productivity.

Industrial robotics should have no trouble achieving the continued rate of technological progress that will allow it to remain prominent in manufacturing and other sectors. As this list shows, there are plenty of opportunities and channels for increased productivity. Robots have enhanced capabilities, and more industries are concluding that it's time to incorporate them to their workflows.

Kayla Matthews writes about the IoT, IIoT, automation and smart technologies for publications like InformationWeek, Manufacturing.net, Robotiq others. To read more from Kayla, follow her personal tech blog, Productivity Bytes.

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