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Robots Take the Next Step in Automation

Companies have finally developed robots dexterous enough to assemble consumer electronics products, such as smartphones, according to The Wall Street Journal. Although robots have been used for years in industrial manufacturing, until recently they weren't flexible enough for intricate products or easy enough to reprogram. In the quick product life cycles of small consumer electronics devices, both qualities are key.

But that's starting to change, and electronics manufacturers are beginning to embrace a new generation of robots. Last fall, Hitachi started using robots to make hard disk drives, according to the WSJ article. The robot replaces a human who used to screw a cover over the drive's fan, saving a minute per disk in production time.

Another article in The New York Times last week describes how robots in a Philips factory in the Netherlands are assembling high-end electric shavers that are even more complex than smartphones.

“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” a Philips assembly line manager told The Times.

These news accounts imply that the current model of assembling electronics products, using many low-cost workers to assemble them by hand, is on the way out. Foxconn has said it plans to install more than a million robots within the next few years. I'd be surprised if other major contract manufacturers don't have similar plans. The Times article notes that Flextronics is increasingly automating assembly work and quotes Mike Dennison, president of Flextronics' high velocity solutions group: “At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan? There's always a price point, and we're very close to that point.”

These new robots could also have a significant impact on distribution. Although electronics distributors have automated much of the warehouse work, last time I looked they still had people driving pallets of goods around. Amazon is leading the way to reducing the number of such people, having bought robot-maker Kiva Systems last spring for $775 million. Large grocery chains are deploying robots in distribution.

The Times article describes the warehouse of one wholesale grocery distributor that's making the transition. The old system covers 500,000 square feet. Shelves are loaded and unloaded by hundreds of pallet jacks and forklifts driven by people receiving directions through headsets. The new system covers only 30,000 square feet. A four-story cage holds 168 go-cart-like robots on different levels. The robots, wirelessly controlled, can move at 25 miles an hour.

Electronics distributors are surely investigating, perhaps already using, these robots. It's worth noting that Stephen Kaufman, former chairman of Arrow Electronics Inc., has served on Kiva's board of directors. And some recent news reports have said that Amazon's acquisition of Kiva could mean that Amazon is getting into the warehouse logistics business. Other cutting-edge robotics companies worth watching: Adept Technology, Symbotic, Industrial Perception Inc., Kawada Industries Inc., Fanuc Corp., ABB Ltd., Heartland Robotics, and Redwood Robotics.

Are you using new types of robots in manufacturing or distribution? Tell me about it at .

35 comments on “Robots Take the Next Step in Automation

  1. _hm
    August 24, 2012

    It is misnomer to call all automation devices and machniary Robot?

     

  2. Nemos
    August 24, 2012

    In the next coming years will see robots to take seats at every factory unit. The question should be “what about the human workers ?” 

     

  3. mfbertozzi
    August 25, 2012

    @Nemos: I understand, but I would like to share an additional perspective; in a such way, robots could help humans in perfoming better their own job or doing that in critical conditions. We are assisting for example, right now, to the mission to Mars. Maybe right tradeoff in using robots, could bring several advantages to us.

  4. elctrnx_lyf
    August 25, 2012

    The next generation factories and ware houses will consist of robots taking Care of all the goods movements. This will definitely improve the efiiciency and cut the costs.

  5. Cryptoman
    August 25, 2012

    We have all heard that one day in the not so distant future, the development of artificial intelligence (AI) will mark the end of the human race as the super intelligent robots will take over the world and make the human race redundant. This article clearly shows that without the need of AI, people are able to make humans redundant in the manufacturing sector at least.

    The trouble is the replaced workers are often low skilled people and have very little alternative to find other jobs to be able to make a living. If you consider such replacements in millions, the scale of the problem becomes clearer.

  6. stochastic excursion
    August 25, 2012

    I think the key in the expansion of robot capabilities has to do with that they're getting easier to program.  Increasing ease of use of automation means humans are getting smarter too, and whoever can catch on to programming these devices can ride the gravy train for a while.

  7. Adeniji Kayode
    August 26, 2012

    @mfbertozzi,

    You are right on that but that is an advantage,it could be a disadvantage too.

    Which means that companies will employ less human workers and therby leading to high rate of joblessness.

    I could aslo lead to people going to school to get educated to be jobless because  what they can do can be done faster and better by a Robot.

  8. Adeniji Kayode
    August 26, 2012

    @elctrnx,

    You are very right on that but it may also increase joblessness except if we all go to school to learn how to make Robots.

  9. Mr. Roques
    August 26, 2012

    Do you happen to know what the price point is? It depends on the industry, i'm sure. But this robots must have some sort of entry-level price, don't they?

  10. bolaji ojo
    August 26, 2012

    The price point is less important than the return on the investment. If the robots' productivity is exponentially higher, the investment would have been worth it over the life span of the equipment. If robots take over companies may be less concerned about things they must constantly consider where humans are concerned.

  11. bolaji ojo
    August 26, 2012

    Rich, There's another overpopulation you may have to be concerned about if “robots take the next step in automation.” If robots become as successful as people have imagined, robots will be used for many and most functions man currently performs. The overpopulation of robots will follow the underemployment of man.

  12. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 27, 2012

    @Adeniji,

    “it may also increase joblessness”

    I have been hearing that complaint about robots taking our jobs for years now and nothing has happened. The threat may be real, but we should not blow things out of proportion.

  13. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 27, 2012

    Till the time when robots themselves will be able to reproduce robots, we humans do not have to worry. More robots actually means more jobs in robot manufactruing , so the human effort is not reduced but diverted to some different factory.

    Robot design, manufactruing, related software development , robot maintenance all of this is going to become a big industry  tomorrow like IT has become today .

  14. stochastic excursion
    August 27, 2012

    It's true that these technical innovations transform the workplace rather than eliminating it.  I'm of the opinion that nature is in an imperfect state, and as long as that's the case there will always be work to do.  The trick is turning that work into paying jobs.

  15. Taimoor Zubar
    August 27, 2012

    Robots making people lose jobs has surely been a myth for over the years and I think it will continue to be. With the introduction of robots, the mode of jobs will change but the overall number will not decline (in the economy that is). Mechanical workers may not be required anymore but they'll be replaced by people who can program robots and supervise them. Workers will need to get some additional trainings in order to cope up with this change.

  16. Taimoor Zubar
    August 27, 2012

    Increasing ease of use of automation means humans are getting smarter too, and whoever can catch on to programming these devices can ride the gravy train for a while.”

    @Stochastic: Considering this dire need for people who can program robots, I think universities need to pay more attention to this and start offering degree programs in the area of robotic engineering. There's already plenty of gap in the demand and supply of robot programmers and the gap will exist if the curriculum is not revised.

  17. Anna Young
    August 27, 2012

    @Prabhakar, absolutely! At least it's evident robots cannot produce robots. The innovation and technology is still concentrated in humans.  Its introduced to accelerate productions and maximise profits isn't?

  18. Anna Young
    August 27, 2012

     It shows that there are changes taking place in the electronics manufacturing sectors. However, from human perspectives the fear of structural change to what it's been conditioned is often difficult to cope with. I agree with you to cope with these changes it will require re- training. I think that's the only way forward.

  19. SP
    August 27, 2012

    I guess in the industries where most of the work is monotonous and there is hardly any change its better to employ a robot. Atleast robot wont complain. But think about the amount of electonic waste we are gengerating by making so many robots.

  20. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 27, 2012

    Bots in warehouses are extremely cool, althugh a little creepy…I think for certain orders (standard lot-size, etc.) they can't be beat. For orders that have to be broken down and kits, though, I think there is still a fair amount of human intervention required. But the smarter automation gets, the more that will chnage as well

  21. Clairvoyant
    August 27, 2012

    I saw a show last night on the Discovery channel about the massive Aalsmeer Flower Auction buildings. There is an automated rail system which will carry flowers to different areas of the buildings based on a barcode. The units know where they are in the rail system based on barcodes on the rails they are travelling on. It's pretty interesting stuff.

  22. ahdand
    August 27, 2012

    Well I feel robots have already taken several steps towards automation. Its just a matter of fact where they take full control over the whole system  

  23. Himanshugupta
    August 27, 2012

    @SP, for any repetitive work a robot is for sure a better choice given the price offset to deploy a robot is not excessively larger than human worker. Electronic waste is today's reality and i still do not know how will we handle so much of electronic waste. While thinking about whether robots will take jobs away from humans i realize that some is still required to make robots. So, the jobs will just shift from one domain to another.

  24. Himanshugupta
    August 27, 2012

    @Clairvoyant, indeed while watching extreme machines or any such engineer related program i am always amazed at the ingenuity of the machines. Industrial design and automation is interesting any time.

  25. jmcfarland
    August 28, 2012

    KH Lloreda, Spain's largest household cleaning product manufacturer, is using robots (developed by Fanuc, one of the companies mentioned above) at its distribution warehouse.  When a customer order comes in, robots locate and pick up the products for the order and RFID verifies that the correct boxes have been selected and that they are loaded onto the correct trucks for delivery. The combination of robots and RFID has virtually eliminated the need for labor at the warehouse. It is definitely a very interesting application for both RFID and robots. You can read more in the case study.

  26. syedzunair
    August 29, 2012

    Himanshugupta: 

    Apart from the electronic waste another compelling issue with the extensive use of robots is the impact on human employment. Industries where robots have been deployed in manufacturing have led to the layoff of many workers.

    I am not against the use of technology but I think human resource deployment should be considered before using robots. 

  27. syedzunair
    August 29, 2012

    jmcfarland: 

    Robots can work most effectively for defined set of instructions like the scenario that you have mentioned. Combined with RFID robots are indeed doing a good job with hopefully lesser errors than before.

    Unfortunately, the problem comes in when intuition is required for a decision. In those cases, human intervention is required to sort out things. Nevertheless, technologically it seems to be a good solution. 

  28. Adeniji Kayode
    August 29, 2012

    @prabhakar,

    Are you saying that, by then all our jobs will center around making and designing of robots?

  29. Adeniji Kayode
    August 29, 2012

    @stochastic,

    I agree it transform our workplace but it also reduce available jobs too.

    How many gas attendants do you have to employ in an automated gas station?

  30. Adeniji Kayode
    August 29, 2012

    @SP,

    you are right on that, same goes to  impact on power generation.

  31. Mr. Roques
    August 29, 2012

    I understand, but even that can be translated into a price point. You measure the ROI and everything else and we can conclude: if it costs less than 100,000$, then it's worth it.

  32. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 29, 2012

    Adenji,

    I do not mean to say that but my point is that there will be transformation of the nature of jobs that humans will be doing when new technologies start working for the routine tasks.

    Take for example the working of banks and stock exchanges which was a purely manual activity a few years backwhci is now wholly working in real time on computerised systems. This has rediced the clerical work force but see how many software development ,support and maintenance jobs it has created worldwide.

  33. Susan Fourtané
    August 29, 2012

    Prabhakar, 

    “there will be transformation of the nature of jobs that humans will be doing when new technologies start working for the routine tasks.”

    Exactly. This transformation you are talking about is something that will happen not only at workforce level but also at creating new careers while older ones disappear as the graduates will not be needed anymore.

    Your example of the changes in the banking system is good. More and more we will see bank branches disappearing, and more online and cloud banking being created and used. New jobs in connection with banking are created but the old clerks will disappear completely. Even money will suffer a transformation, and cash will dsappear to give room to electronic transactions in cashless economies. And this is no future or science fiction, this is already happening in Sweden. 

    -Susan 

  34. mfbertozzi
    September 2, 2012

    @AK: well, I have appreciated your thoughts and I agree with the fact that, in a such way, robots' adoption could represent a possible risk for workers' job; I would proceed with your vision about education. Robots need to be conceived, than built, deployed and managed then all those steps could potentially act as now jobs and activities for humans and, in principle, for teaching at schools.

  35. mfbertozzi
    September 2, 2012

    @elctrnx_lyf: I full share this point, warehouses' automation has allowed saving and a better way for providing end users with goods requested; the important step, speaking for myself, is the profit achieved by companies which have adopted automation by robots; I aim it will be invested, also partially, for example in education for workers in order to assure also for them, a step forward.

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