Collaborative Robotics and the Evolution of the Species

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I recently visited the BMW Group’s plant in Munich, which is a monument to automation. The single assembly line stretches across multiple floors and it’s packed with robots, silently and gently swinging around the vehicles. It really is fascinating to watch.

There are no people around… apparently. Yet, robotics actually share the floor with 7,000 people. If you look carefully, there are offices all around the line, where supervising roles are essential to a swift flow in production. At BMW, people have value-added tasks such as final manual assembly, with crowds of young Germans proudly crafting luxury cars.

At BMW, automation is intelligent and designed for agility, safety and the environment. Robots can read transceivers that vehicles are equipped with and autonomously switch tools to handle different parts that are needed by the vehicle.

Robots carry out all the high-risk tasks such as welding and painting. Their movements are so precise that only 20% of sprayed paint misses the vehicles. Any remaining particles are captured by a stream of water underneath and is fully reused or recycled.

From Industrial to Collaborative Robotics

In manufacturing, robotics are well established and growing steadily. In 2015, robot sales increased by 15% to more than 250,000 units – by far the highest level ever recorded for one year, according to The International Federation of Robotics. Indeed, many members of the SCM World community agree, as 53% consider advanced robotics important and disruptive with respect to supply chain strategies – a number that’s almost doubled in just a couple of years.

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Advancements in artificial intelligence are driving the emergence of a brand-new class of robotics with enhanced senses and dexterity. Known as collaborative robots, these lightweight machines can automate tasks that were previously impossible due to cost and complexity.

There’s growing excitement around collaborative robots and a bright future ahead. In 2015, fewer than 8,000 collaborative robotics were installed worldwide; however, Barclays’ equity research analysts estimate annual unit sales of 150,000 in 2020 and 701,000 in 2025.

Success stories include Johnson & Johnson, Harley Davidson, Trelleborg and Volkswagen. In addition, automotive manufacturer Continental has been very successful in implementing collaborative robots in its Seguin, Texas facility. Through change management and training, collaborative robotics have been very well received by plant workers and have been a real morale booster. Continental’s manufacturing team realized that collaborative robotics represented an opportunity to maintain their jobs, avoiding the plant to be moved to lower cost locations. Also, by letting robots do the hard work, they raised the value-added nature of their activities and now operate at higher technical levels, which make them feel they are making a true impact on the company’s success.

Also, Lenovo is working on a three-year initiative to completely digitize its 13 internal production plants. The first site has recently gone live in China, with collaborative robotics able to perform most of the assembly operations for a range of servers. Lenovo now intends to combine this with big data analytics. Acquiring data from a multitude of IT applications and automation, analyzing it for predictions and root cause determination and visualizing it at different granular levels for a number of personas is expected to help plant floor workers gain new levels of efficiency and agility.

Power to the People

With such a rapid increase in the number of robotics, what will the factory of the future look like? Well, jobs that can be automated certainly will be. And, inevitably, people will be let go, but the majority of our members do not think that robotics will lead to fully automated, lights-off factories.

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In a human-machine study conducted by MIT researchers at a BMW factory, it was shown that teams made of humans and robots collaborating as one can be more productive than teams made up of either humans or robots alone. Also, this collaborative process reduced idle time by 85%.

Toyota is an example of a company that’s becoming more efficient by replacing robots with humans. In the past, the company went way too far with automation and lost the human touch, especially in making sure automation performance is constantly monitored. The same thing is happening at Daimler, where robots can’t keep up with the changing pace required by the luxury car-maker. This change comes as many car manufacturers are moving toward an age of individualization.

First movers in automation such as BMW, Toyota and Daimler are teaching us that the way forward is automating for flexibility and leveraging people for value-added tasks.

Robots are evolving from automation to collaboration. And they’re helping humans to evolve from laborers to decision makers.

Author Pierfrancesco Manenti

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