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July 7th, 2018 at 9:37 am

Cobots are transforming the factory floor — but they’re not replacing humans

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Combining human creativity and automation is unlocking new efficiencies.

The increased presence of robots on factory floors has been a boon to manufacturers, who have embraced automation as a way to increase efficiency and cut costs. But there’s been less optimism among human workers, who worry that the rise of robots will render human workers inessential.

In recent years, however, a new school of thought has gained ground: Rather than replace their human counterparts, the manufacturing robots of the future will work alongside them. This future can be seen in the arrival of “cobots,” robots designed to complement human workers. While humans excel at abstract thinking and problem solving, robots shine at bringing speed and accuracy to repetitive, sometimes dangerous tasks. Imagine a factory where robots do the heavy-lifting as humans focus on more meaningful work, where production lines can run unsupervised for weeks with minimal manufacturing defects. In the connected industrial workforce of the future, robots complement workers, improve productivity, and increase operational efficiency.

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This future is already here. Siemens, for example, is pioneering this transformation with its manufacturing plant in Amberg, Germany, where automated production lines run continuously with near-perfect production quality. Complementing that process are the plant’s 1,150 human employees, who maintain this efficiency by focusing on programming and monitoring the factory’s machines.

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Cobots typically come at low-cost, meaning that even small-to medium-sized companies can implement them. One Indian manufacturing company, for example, has used cobots to both increase the number of products it produces each day from by 6,500 percent and significantly increase its headcount. Rather than eliminate jobs, cobots have created new ones.

This is just the beginning of a collaborative relationship between humans and robots. According to a report by Accenture Labs, thanks to increased investments and open-source contributions, a new generation of robots will emerge to handle an increasing amount of variability and complete tasks in less structured environments. Through a robust automation strategy, human + machine teams can leverage the intelligence, dexterity and flexibility of human workers with the autonomy, consistency and reliability of robotic systems.

Despite these benefits, many companies are still hesitant to invest in automation. According to research from Accenture, while 94% of manufacturing executives say they are aware of this workforce evolution, only 22% have implemented the technology in their own processes. These executives said that their biggest concern was the lack of workers trained to meet the challenges of a smart factory floor. That skills shortage is joined by other big challenges. Accenture research has also found that, for manufacturers, data vulnerability and worker fears over job losses are also key risks associated with implementing automation in their processes.

With all of these concerns in mind, how can manufacturers compete with digital leaders? According to Accenture, they can start by upgrading legacy IT systems, hiring new people with interdisciplinary skills, and upskilling existing workers.

With insights on artificial intelligence and machine learning across industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, security, financial services and more, Accenture is mapping digital trends as they develop and mature. With fresh perspectives straight from thought leaders, Accenture is helping companies realize their digital competitiveness.

Via Quartz Media

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