The Rise of Collaborative Robots: COBOTS

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As the fourth industrial revolution, known by some as Industry 4.0, continues to transform the supply chain, companies must aim to increase productivity and improve estate utilization by integrating robotics and automation, without deliberately neglecting employees.

MIT Researchers found that robot-human teams were 85% more productive than either alone. This emphasizes the importance of facilitating cooperation between employees and robots. Collaborative Robots – termed ‘Cobots’ are being developed, designed to assist humans, which are safe, flexible and easily programmed by human employees.

The threat of robots rendering the human workforce redundant has gained much publicity, however, some developers claim (rightly or wrongly) that robots will be used to aid tasks that are repetitive or too dangerous for humans. Reallocating these tasks to robots gives human industrial employees the opportunity to retrain and upskill. This simultaneously addresses the digital engineering skills shortage caused by a lack of systematic engagement between education and industry, while also empowering employees. Companies must communicate the benefits of robotics and the different ways technology will be incorporated to reassure workers.

Amazon is pioneering the use of warehouse robots to help with order fulfilment and faster delivery times. Cobots bring shelves of products to Amazon warehouse operatives to prepare for shipment, reducing order time from 1 hour to 15 minutes. Employees wear a robotics tech vest which sends a signal to the robots in the warehouse, so they can safely move around the building. The vest uses AI and sensors to draw an access path around the wearer, so cobots automatically slow down and update their route to avoid humans. Amazon developed the vest in response to fears about the safety of robotics, facilitating human-cobot collaboration to increase efficiency, reduce defects, lower prices and improve overall workplace safety. Furthermore, Amazon is funding employees to study robotics, showing a clear commitment to human-cobot cooperation.

While Amazon is committed to fostering cooperation between humans and robots and claim there will be no job losses, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 1.5 million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation, and Oxford University economists predict that almost half of US jobs could be at risk. Despite these warnings, the benefits resulting from automating processes using robotics is still predicted to lead to a subsequent increase in businesses integrating industrial robots.

As the dawn of Industry 4.0 looms ahead, is the gap between physical solutions to streamlining the supply chain and the supporting technologies growing, as our knowledge exponentially expands?

Mercedes-Benz recently replaced robots with humans on some production lines; yet, to their dismay, proceeded to claim that the robotic machines were not agile enough for the trend of customized products. In comparison, humans can ‘re-program’ immediately and are much more flexible.

The company decided to move away from trying to maximize automation, with people playing a bigger role in industrial processes again. Mercedes-Benz has found that human-robot cooperation, such as a person guiding a part-automatic robot, results in better flexibility and the ability to produce a variety of products on one production line. This indicates that simply replacing human employees with robots is ineffective, it is more productive to nurture a successful cobot-human dynamic.

Within the Logistics landscape, a very modern, and sometimes mal-adapted strategy to managing and maintaining operational efficiency, relies on introducing digitization and process automation, as an automatic response to optimizing solutions. To be successful however, this implementation must ultimately follow a diligent and strategic process, for a business to maintain their market position.

The dawn of Industry 4.0 is predicted to trigger a shift in the purpose of industrial employees, from a manual, labor-intensive role to the programming and piloting of robots. To ensure the transition is cohesive, managers should be transparent and be willing to up-skill their workforce. Businesses that design the workflow to capitalize on the best attributes of humans and robots will benefit from increased efficiency and reduced costs.

Whilst the logistics sector is intrinsically dynamic and extremely competitive, and the era of digital evolution seeks to improve efficiency and effectiveness within supply chains, logistics networks and warehouse operations; a few reservations remain holistically, surrounding the benefits to be reaped.

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