Augmented Support: Robots can be co-workers, not replacements
Manufacturing and Process Management

Augmented Support: Robots can be co-workers, not replacements

Automation is one of the most pertinent issues of today. Ignoring the hyperbole around whether robots will rise up and destroy humanity, there is the much more real issue about how the rise of automation will affect jobs.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, sales of industrial robots are predicted to see double-digit percentage growth for the rest of the decade. Depending on the study, job losses because of automation range from a fairly low 5% to almost 50% of the population. But the IFR is a strong proponent that instead of replacing human workers, robots actually augment their human counterparts, making them more productive and increase demand for labour.


Automation is about agility, not reducing labour

Automation isn’t about taking jobs, according to Peter Bos, Vice President Engineering Manufacturing and Automation at CommScope, during a tour of the telecom company’s new Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centre in Kessel-Lo, Belgium.

He says automation is about agility; ensuring that CommScope can “build close and quickly” to the customer. Areas the company is looking at, for example, include 3D printing for its cable casing, machine vision for casing inspection, further automation of the production and testing of fibre-optic cabling, and more.

The new centre is designed to utilise automation in the manufacturing processes for telecoms equipment such as base stations and cable-housing. The centre is focused on four main areas; automation & robotics, vision & inspection, materials & processing, and mechanical & assembly.

In its production of base stations, for example, the company is using Augmented Reality. A vision system scans the shell of the base station, and highlights exactly which component needs to go where, and the step-by-step system only moves on once it’s happy each part is placed properly. This “Augmented Support” means that training time is reduced from days or weeks into minutes and hours, workers aren’t taken off production to assist with training, and workers are more flexible because systems such as this allow them to retrain far quicker.

“One of the key things customers expect from us today is quick delivery with perfect quality, and to do that we need to have quick and flexible changeover, that we can build different variations of products that meet the different customer’s needs. And that's why we need flexible set-ups; robots that we can reprogram and re-utilise.”


Making robots co-workers

The future of robots is about making them more like ‘co-workers who work side by side’ with human co-workers, according to Eddie Mennen, Managing Director at Yaskawa Benelux.

This includes making robots more reactive to the physical world around them. For example, the Japanese company’s new HC10 stops operating if the arm bumps into anything unexpected - which removes the need for safety barriers around the bot – and can also be guided with human hands.

The company also wants robots to be easier to program and more flexible. Mennen says the company wants to make programming robots as “easy as using apps on your phone”, so that instead of ‘dedicated automation’ where each robot is designed to do a specific task – as is often the case today – they are easily re-assigned to different tasks depending on the customer’s need at that moment.

He says that the old models of finding cheap suppliers in places such as China and shipping containers full of goods is an out-dated business model.

“We need to be producing close to the market, we only build to order, not in three months but next week. Companies invest in robots to keep their manufacturing here; to keep the people employed, but with these, people become much more productive so they can have a higher value-add.

“We need robots to keep our businesses going, so it's not taking away the jobs but enabling them to be competitive, and keeping the jobs here not disappearing somewhere else.

“Either you embrace it and do it in a smart way or you get left behind or you're one of the people who will suffer for nothing.”


Also read:
Everything you need to know about… Automation
Will AI-based automation see humanity reach its own ‘peak horse’ moment soon?
Office 2021: Why robots won’t end drudgery or steal our jobs
Evil mankind-hating robots are not the same as automation
Can we prepare for the jobs that don’t exist yet?


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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