From autonomous cars to window cleaning robots that allow you to sit back while they do the hard work, the potential of robotics continues to expand.
As we increasingly see robots enter into our private and public lives and hear dramatic projections of mass automation, it’s worth remembering that they have long been a reality in the world of manufacturing. Since the 1960s, large, industrial robots have been used in industries such as automotive, to speed up processes and relieve humans from more strenuous tasks. These gains inevitably led to growth, which in turn created more jobs.
But in an industrial context, progress in automation has been relatively slow. Until fairly recently, industrial robots have been stationary, limited in sight, and relatively unintelligent, lacking the complexity and agility that industry requires and demanding every move to be pre-planned by a human. With the advent of micro technology, improvement in camera quality, the rise of artificial intelligence and the ability to create compact and safe ‘cobot’ robots, today’s robots have the ability to see more, pick, move and react, and can learn and adapt from human instruction.
As a result, we are seeing rapid acceleration in robots, with 15% growth in industrial robotics per year globally, reaching over 25% in some non-traditional robotic sectors such as electronics. Robots are on the rise, and both business leaders and employees need to understand this technology, and look on it as an opportunity rather than a threat.
The blurring of roles between man and machine is not a simple case of robots replacing the human workforce, history has shown that technology is a job creator and recent research from Deloitte revealed that in Switzerland jobs with a low risk of being replaced had increased, while jobs with a high risk of being automated had decreased. Rather than reducing head count or job prospects, robotics will allow businesses to redeploy their workforce and steer their hiring strategies towards areas that add value and can’t be automated.
Robotics in an industrial setting is starting to mature and reshape the way technology interconnects with manual tasks. In supply chain logistics robots are playing a vital role in how we source, deliver and package parts. They are now so advanced that they can be used to grade different types of eggs and sort fine wines, something that would’ve previously required a human eye. While this type of role is highly skilled for a robot, it is repetitive and unappealing to people, making it hard to recruit for so the use of robots fills an employment gap rather than displacing workers.
In consumer industries, ecommerce has placed huge demand on our supply chains, with the expectation that a delivery can be with us within hours of placing an order. In addition to the logistical complexities this ‘have it now’ culture brings, there’s also demand for more, not fewer, people who can process and deliver these items. With today’s robots able to work alongside humans, they are a viable solution to some of the challenges that come from increasing customer expectations and demands, and bring opportunities for employees that have new skills such as robotic engineering.
At DHL, we have just announced our commitment to an advanced robotics programme, including the use of nine cobot Sawyer robots to quickly sort and pack products and work alongside colleagues to increase productivity. We’ve also trialled the robot Effi-BOT in our warehouses, a fully automated trolley that follows pickers through the warehouse and takes care of most of the physical work, and LocusBots which work alongside people in the Life Sciences sector to quickly locate and transport parts.
Elsewhere, technology companies are developing small robots which can deliver small packages directly to consumers’ homes. During delivery, shoppers will track the robot’s location in real time through a mobile app and, on arrival, only the customer can unlock the cargo with their phone.
Robotic technology is now more affordable and accessible to businesses than ever, and tomorrow’s robots will continue to advance. Robots are being developed which use photographic imagery and sensors to recognise the dimensions of a product while artificial intelligence enables them to start to ‘feel’ their environment to their behaviour, and more importantly learn from their mistakes. With robots being created around cloud software, they will always be up to date with the latest software version and will continuously evolve to be better products, even after being purchased.
It is no longer a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ robots will be at the heart of day-to-day life and business. With the potential to increase the quality of our lives in many aspects, whether that’s through aiding with household tasks, autonomously driving our cars or making businesses more productive, the future is looking robotic.
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