Hollywood has given us many visions of fantastical sci-fi robots with great dexterity doing incredible things, such as robots that run on two legs at incredible speeds, delicately plucking flowers between two metal fingers, or giving up no ground when hit head-on by a car. These robots may even be able to fly and shoot laser beams from their eyes.
While these visions are still a distant dream, and our robotic overlords are constrained to nightmares and movies, the idea of robots capable of performing certain human tasks that were impossible only a few short years ago is no longer far-fetched.
Robots working alongside humans, and supplanting certain tasks, is not a new phenomenon. If you tour any automotive manufacturer facility, you will see large robotic arms performing a variety of actions, from lifting and holding materials to bolting and welding them into place. Each robot is programmed to do a particular task or set of tasks. However, the ability to interact with a diverse set of objects, or to operate with a diverse set of skills, has previously evaded robotics technology.
These are the primary barriers that have stood between robots and tasks that require fine motor skills. If an object is slightly off-kilter, oddly shaped, or has a variance in weight, a robot of the past could not pick it up and move it. This is the main difference between those commonplace robots and new, improved robots that are now infiltrating the work force.
In the past, robots were confined to assembly line-type jobs, completing incredibly simple and repetitive tasks. New programming and designs are enabling robots to perform more complex, specific tasks that require improved dexterity.
New materials, AI
The incorporation of polymers that can expand and apply the proper amount of pressure to specific objects allows new robots to grasp and lift things their predecessors could not. Further, the advent of artificial intelligence means that robots can now process information, such as data provided by cameras, to assess the type of object and its location, allowing them to adjust on the fly. Machine learning enables these newer robots to learn from mistakes and improve their own performance, increasing the productivity of the entire facility.
Robotics companies such as OnRobot, Soft Robotics, and RightHand Robotics have seen success designing systems and tools with human-like appendages. Their new designs have been implemented in many different industries, from food packaging, to baking, to warehouse management. While the manufacturers certainly believe their products will eventually increase productivity and profitability, they also believe that they will improve the quality of work for humans.
For example, Henning Jørgensen, a manager at Rosborg Food Holding, claims that “We are continuously working to improve the productivity and efficiency of our processes. The automation solution we implemented relieved our employees of monotonous, physically demanding tasks that they would prefer to avoid anyway. Robot technology also helps us reduce the amount of overtime and temporary workers we need”.
Dexterity creates new opportunities
The extensive programming and custom tuning required to enable robots to perform specific tasks, though expensive, provide unparalleled opportunities for growth, both technologically and financially. For example, imagine that each of those arms contributing to the construction of a car could perform multiple tasks and adapt on the fly. Not only would this make the facility itself more versatile and productive, but it would also reduce the number of robots needed in the first place. Both factors play into an important aspect of the financial viability of paying for these new technologies.
While robots work at a slower pace than humans, robots do not take breaks, use the bathroom, or eat lunch. Furthermore, robots can work throughout the night if monitored properly. At present, supplanting human workers for these newly-dexterous robots trades speed for accuracy. While the implications for your bottom line may now be minimal, the potential for massive payoffs down the road is certainly there. With technology destined to continue evolving and becoming more versatile, it would not be surprising to see this new generation of robots become even more common in the warehouse. With better programming and testing, it is certainly plausible that robots could perform even more complex tasks in the future, perhaps limited only by the time and resources available to invest in this new research and development.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for humanity and its workers. While a robot may replace a worker or two in a facility, their implementation will also create new jobs. From designers and programmers to mechanics and troubleshooters, the deployment of robotics will require humans to keep them running smoothly and efficiently.
Beyond this encouraging fact, the human hand is still the most adaptive tool on the planet, and will not soon be replaced. While engineers are working hard to make robots more adept at performing delicate tasks, it will be many years before a machine can fully replace humans in the workplace.