We're in the early days of the "third industrial robot revolution," one that will bring about a whole new breed of robot on the assembly line. So said John Dulchinos, vice president of global automation with Jabil Circuit, Inc.
Robots especially promise to redefine contract manufacturing, Dulchinos said at the recent Supply Chain Insights Global Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz. (The event was treated to an appearance by Baxter, the industrial robot from Rethink Robotics that purportedly can learn from experience, and work alongside humans without the safety concerns that have banished older models to cages.)
General Motors installed its first industrial robot at a plant in Trenton, N.J. in 1961. By the time the automaker marked the technology’s 50th anniversary, in 2011, there were more than a million industrial robots in use at factories around the world.
GM was also a catalyst behind the second robot revolution in the mid-1980s, following a series of widespread layoffs. “GM thought robots were the answer,” said Dulchinos, “but the quality wasn’t there and the processes weren’t right.” Nevertheless, robots in factories made strides in productivity, right up to the financial crisis of 2007-08.
More recently, robots have caught on in China, which is struggling with a shortage of human labor at factories in its largest industrial zones, as well as Korea, Japan and Germany. Yet Dulchinos identified a basic mismatch between the technology and the problem it was designed to solve. The vast majority of robots are engaged in machine loading and processing, but assembly and testing “is where all the labor sits.” As a result, less than 10 percent of problems in the factory today are being solved by robots.
For all the claims of robots saving on labor costs, they remain extremely expensive to acquire and maintain. Most need to be customized for particular applications, have short product lives, and suffer from a lack of reusability. Up to 70 percent of the cost of a typical system lies outside the robot, Dulchinos said.
“Today’s factories are built around people, in size, ergonomics, dexterity, sensing and intelligence,” he said. “Automated solutions don’t have that flexibility.”
So why bother with robots at all? Because “we’re about to embark on one of the greatest demographic shifts in the history of the world: the retirement of Baby Boomers.” An aging population, with fewer workers available to replace retirees, promises to create the same kind of labor crunch that China is already experiencing. Moreover, much of the younger workforce is likely to shun jobs in manufacturing.
The very nature of the industry is due for a change as well. Producers are under growing pressure to turn out customized items for an increasingly demanding consumer base. Nike is making personalized shoes. Google is offering configurable mobile phones that can be sold in developing countries for less than $50. The age of mass customization, so long a dream, is upon us.
Robots will play a key role in the flexible factory of the future. They’ll be helped along by a number of related industrial technologies, including mobile computing, gaming and networking. The third wave of robots will feature intuitive human-machine interface (HMI) capability, 3D vision and force control. Robots will be able to touch and feel – a far more important attribute for a machine than the ability to “see,” Dulchinos noted. (Never mind the cartoonish eyes depicted on Baxter’s small video screen.)
Most importantly, robots will be able to work alongside people. Older robots in Jabil’s factories were restricted to safety cages, but the new ones are out on the line. By eliminating the need to segregate machines, the manufacturer cuts its infrastructure costs by 30 percent, while creating a system that’s much more flexible.
(By the way, Dulchinos said, don’t expect robots to eliminate people altogether, as they already have in some highly automated warehouses. “The factory of the future isn’t ‘lights-out,’” he said. “It’s a combination of people and automation solving problems.”)
So what’s it all mean for the manufacturing link of the supply chain? Robotics will enable just-in-time delivery of parts to the production line in smaller lots. The technology will allow for end-to-end traceability of materials, along with in-station qualification of items. It will reduce scrap and rework. It will promote shared learning across work cells. It will facilitate rapid product changeovers, with stations reordering materials automatically. Dulchinos even believes that this new wave of automation can aid manufacturers in making decisions about where to site factories and adjacent supplier bases.
That’s not a terrible vision of the future, considering the bad rap that robots have been given by a century’s worth of books, movies and TV shows. While it remains to be seen whether the ultimate impact of robots on humans will be negative or positive, it’s interesting to hear a view that favors the latter scenario.
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