Here’s how next-gen robots are changing manufacturing

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 22nd July 2016

Robots are no longer the unyielding, one-task giants doing humans’ dull and dangerous work. The new breed can perform more than one task and work alongside humans without being a physical threat. As a result, manufacturers across industries are looking at robots in new ways.

Here’s how next-gen robots are impacting on labour, the factory floor, collaboration, products and innovation and competition.

They still don’t call in sick or take breaks, but new-gen robots are vastly different to “Unimate”, the first robot General Motors deployed in its factories back in 1961. Here’s where they’re impacting manufacturing … 


  1. Labour

Are robots “job takers” or “job makers”? There is an ongoing debate about this. As Boston Consulting Group’s Hal Sirkin said, “Robots are going to change the economic calculus for manufacturing. People will spend less time chasing low-cost labour.”

On the job-maker side, for Australia, and other high-wage nations such as the United States and the UK, this means bringing back some of the processes currently performed by lower-paid workers in South-East Asia for example.

On the job-taker side, using robots eliminates many unskilled job positions by automating repetitive and mundane tasks. However, this then has a long-term effect of leading to more humans being employed. A good example is electric car manufacturer Tesla: it’s renowned for its cutting-edge automation, but is also the largest auto-industry employer in California. How? Because automation has helped fuel the company’s growth, which has, in turn, led to more hiring. (Check out this blog on the 3 brilliant lessons every food & beverage company can learn from Tesla.)


  1. The factory floor

A long-time resident in factories, robots have traditionally been used for heavy lifting, palletising and packing — the jobs that don’t need a light touch; humans then do the small, more delicate jobs. However, next gen-robots can take on tasks needing more dexterity and precision — and even more than humans can achieve. Some researchers are also predicting that we will soon be able to set up robots easily so they can be moved and reinstalled in different parts of the line, meaning less investment in heavy fixed machinery. Already, robots are much lighter and more mobile than ever before.


  1. Collaboration

Instead of being a danger to work beside, these days robots are being built to collaborate. Progress in the field of tactile sensing, machine learning and socially intelligent robots means humans and robots can work side by side. Robots can now use sonar, sensors and cameras to sense where people are, and adjust their speed or actions accordingly.

The most advanced robots can pass messages between software systems and sensors to make decisions based on their environment and function more autonomously. But this next robot generation can also learn from us. Look at how Google’s autonomous car can understand its environment and location, and can then navigate and function accordingly, to see the potential for robots in manufacturing.


  1. Products and innovation

Robot versatility will allow manufacturers to produce shorter runs of products without having to reconfigure their whole factory floor. This could mean more niche products, more customisation and some much-needed innovation. This “flexible manufacturing” has the potential to open new markets for manufacturers, with products able to be varied according to geographical preferences and even individual tastes. Ultimately, this makes it easier for the company to get closer to the customer.


  1. Competition

New-age robots have the potential to shake up competition between companies of all sizes. Before, SMEs were less likely to use robots than larger manufacturers, but this is likely to change. As robots become less expensive and more versatile, smaller manufacturers will be able to compete far more easily with their bigger counterparts. More and more robots can now perform more than one task, such as picking and packing, testing and inspecting, which makes them a worthier investment for smaller companies. A PWC survey of small and mid-sized manufacturers in the USA found that 59% are already currently using some sort of robotics technology.


 Robots move into food & beverage


The thought of fast-moving industrial robots with heavy arms swinging dangerously inside a cage is not really accurate any more. The new generation is smarter, nimbler, more mobile, more collaborative and more adaptable. They can take on more jobs and do so with more autonomy from humans.

And the more inexpensive and accessible they become, the more potential for big changes on the factory floor. This doesn’t just apply to the automotive industry, but increasingly to other industries — especially food and beverage. According to the report “Industrial Robots for Food & Beverage Industry: Global Market 2016-2022”, the food and beverage industry has been ordering an increasing number of industrial robots, with adoption outpacing that of traditional industries, including automotive and electronic. The Asia-Pacific region already dominates the global industrial robots market and has the strongest growth potential.


Further reading


Matthews has written several articles on robots, with some good background information on big manufacturing changes experts predict for 2016, disruptive innovations ready to rock your supply chain, the innovations from 80-year-old family business Walls Machinery regarding robotics, and the innovations discussed at GS1’s 2015 Supply Chain Week.

Innovation, including with robotics, is clearly important to business success; you may find further interesting information in the “Innovation & Best Practice” section on our blog, along with thought-provoking material in the resource library, whitepapers, articles from thought leaders, presentations, and infographics. All material from the resource library is free to download.


Mark Dingley is General Manager of Matthews Australasia and Chairman of the Australian Packaging and Processing Machinery Association (APPMA). With 20+ years of experience in the product identification industry and the wealth of knowledge gained from working closely with manufacturers and industry associations, Mark actively contributes to industry forums, magazines and the Matthews blog.