In my last post, I floated the concept that in order for manufacturers to achieve sustained success, new thinking about automation has to be realized as a different kind of robot. This new robot looks, behaves and costs a whole lot less than what is pervasive in Big M manufacturing and out of reach of smaller companies. In addition to delivering the typical benefits of automation – efficiency, repeatability, lower costs –these robots represent a game-changing opportunity in the relationship between humans and robots.
I’m talking about an integrated workforce, where robots and humans work side-by-side. These operations look very, very different than the ones we see where machines do the work and humans are shielded on the other side of protective cages.
Think I am dreaming? Consider this scenario. A fixed automation system in a distribution center can’t keep up with the weekly changes in order configuration for a market-driven consumer packaged goods company. This week it’s a travel-sized tube of toothpaste packaged with a toothbrush; next week the end-cap offer is a new brand of shaving gel with two disposable razors. What choice does the distributor have than to put people on the task? Pick and pack. Pick and pack. Pick and pack. Over and over again. A box gets shipped with 98 plastic containers, instead of 100. The customer is understandably upset. Is it the worker’s fault? Hardly. It’s an honest mistake made by a brain that simply isn’t designed to spend 8 hours a day on a mind-numbing task.
Now imagine this. A robot is on the line. The worker looks at the orders for the day or for the week, steps over to his “colleague” and with a few commands sets the robot to work on the task. And moves on to do a task that requires intelligence.
The new power of automation lies in a simple idea. When it comes to deploying automation, it no longer is a question of either robots or humans. It becomes a statement of “and”. Humans and robots working side by side; humans training robots on tasks – on the line, in real-time, without a PhD in robotics or programming; humans free from highly repetitive, low-skilled work and able to take on the roles that make a difference to customers and to the bottom line.