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It's well recorded within the manufacturing industry that robots play a role. A recent review of British manufacturing argues that automation technologies could give the sector a strong boost and create many new jobs. The next generation of these robots that are emerging showcases development speed, competent of far more than their single-arm machine predecessors that were frequently connected to the ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

The agility now required of the more established manufacturers is shown in smaller more agile robots. Their power to generate real-time data means they are increasing in popularity due to their versatility in businesses of all sizes. The cost difference between these and more rigid units can be hard to ignore, with incredible savings. But there are many more factors such as workflow design and data capture that should be considered when devising automation strategies.

Great things come in small packages

With correct integration, smaller units have the ability to amplify skills and strengths performed by people which can increase efficiency within the workplace. The results show for themselves in manufacturing organisations they are already being deployed in. Shock absorber insertion, assembly lines, or eyes in the form of drones to patrol spaces not always being able to be covered by human sight.

This capability allows higher value work to be taken on by humans, with both being vital for efficient production. Human- robot teams working for BMW were found to be apx. 85% more productive than either of the groups individually on their own (Source: MIT). This means a saving of time with decreased processes for product configuration and an increase of sales.
Forever learning, robots can easily learn new skills, which means they can go so much further than their original programming. Which makes for a greater investment.

Robots are key to data
The data produced by a factory using both robots and humans are wide-ranging. Allowing insights not only from their own source but information can be extracted relating to both humans and robots in real-time.
This is enabled through the units ability to move throughout the manufacturing process on ground level and collect data to share with organisation management and execution managers. The data can be environmental; temperature, humidity or production speeds.

Robot colleagues and integration

Factors need to be taken into consideration when devising a strategy. Firstly, a strong technical base is required, alongside:

  • Strategy : How will integration effect the current workplace structure? Autonomous units that work alongside the wider workplace and processes will need an evaluation, ergonomic studies should be carried out to forecast how humans and robots will work together. An understanding will be needed around the constant learning and skill development for maintaining co-operation and up-to-date software.
  • Social Considerations : Communication is key and human-robot relationships will need structures in place to manage this effectively. The social context will need to be addressed and emotions from these new relationships managed.
  • Automation excellence : By fully managing the integration and taking input from employees, piloting, reporting and giving a wider understanding of automation throughout the workplace will push forward the integration without feeling segregated.
  • Scale-up : Always start small, by piloting automation there is an understanding of what will work for mass rollout and what wont. This is a learning process to manage future automation. By taking this approach and gradually increasing integration will ensure all priorities are aligned with key business objectives.
  • Automation support: Become part of a community of automation and pool expertise and advice from consultants, designers, researchers and system integrators to create a support network. Automation programmes are complex and a single business cannot be expected to create a complete solution.

The workplace that integrates automation needs to be a fluid and adaptable one. A strong understanding of the grey areas between the workflow today and what it could be tomorrow is crucial. The changes require a strong structure to plan effectively and manage the new relations between the robot-human workforce and be able to report feedback from employees within the work cycle. There is much to be gained if manufacturers start small and are fully prepared to take advantage of this promising area.