In nearly every business and government sector across the globe, robots are handily making work easier and more consistent. They help assemble cars, perform operations and explore planets. In manufacturing, robots traditionally have been assigned to large tasks that require only gross movements, like painting, picking and placing. Now, however, they are able to handle fine movements and to work literally shoulder-to-shoulder with humans on complex projects.
So far, robots have been performing tasks that humans could do but that would be time-consuming, boring, hazardous or difficult for mere human hands. As we look to the future, we should anticipate that robots—networked with the Internet of Things (IoT)—will become much more progressive in their capabilities. They will become smarter, more dexterous and more reconfigurable, assuming new stature in the manufacturing ecosystem. Here are a few ways that robots are likely to evolve in the not-so-distant future:
- Robots will become lighter and more portable, so that they can be used more flexibly for a variety of tasks and on multiple assembly lines. The results will be a much more agile and less expensive manufacturing infrastructure and an increased ability to customize smaller runs by moving robots around and programming them for short-term duties.
- Robots will become increasingly agile, able to manipulate smaller components in more complex ways. They will begin to transform the concept of “assembly” into the concept of “craftsmanship,” with much more sensibility toward fine details.
- Robots will become increasingly smart, able to learn to some extent from their past activity and predict work flow. They will begin to show the kinds of intelligence we see in today’s Internet, in which previous choices and actions help guide future actions toward desired goals and quality.
- Assembly-line robots will connect to the Internet of Things so that they will be able to request parts when supplies are low and request replacements for parts they determine are damaged before those components are installed into products.
- Through the Internet, robots will communicate with each other to simplify and accelerate just-in-time production. Going beyond ERP, robotic “peer-to-peer” communications will enable an assembly plant robot to notify a supplier robot when a particular work cell has deviated from the planned production schedule or a supplier to tell the assembly plant that it has run into problems, all in real time.
- Researchers currently are taking advantage of artificial intelligence capabilities in robots to train them when to say “no” to a human command. The robots are being taught to speak up when they receive a command that could be dangerous to humans or cause damage in the facility, based on logical arguments that developers are implanting in the robot’s software.
If all these prospects seem impossible, remember that many of us said the same thing about the Internet and email a generation ago. Chances are we’ll come to rely just as much on robots in manufacturing as they become an essential part of the industrial infrastructure.