Will the adoption of cobots herald a new human and machine collaboration?
Cobots (collaborative robots) are designed not to replace human workers, but to assist and work with them collaboratively within a shared work space. Amid global concerns of the rise of automation and robots replacing human workers, cobots signal a way of enhancing productivity without hollowing out the existing labour force, a hot topic at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, this year.
According to global ERP provider SYSPRO's research partner, Professor Andre Calitz, from the Department of Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), though robotics and automation are increasing rapidly in the workplace, this doesn't mean humans are not needed, especially in areas where robots are weak, like the qualities of adaptability and flexibility.
"If you look at Mercedes-Benz, for example, they are bucking the modern manufacturing trend and trading in assembly line robots for more capable humans. There is more of an emphasis of collaboration between man and machine than replacement." Calitz says this is because there is a high degree of customisation and complexity within each car model and class, and humans can adapt faster to these variables than robots could.
The automotive industry is the largest user of industrial robots, with 1.5 million in operation globally in 2014. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) expects 1.3 million more to come into operation within the next two years.
Mercedes is not the only one changing its car assembly systems, though. BMW and Audi are also utilising cobots outfitted with sensors and intelligence that are safe enough to work next to humans.
Cobots are different from the more traditional robots because they share work space with humans, unlike fixed, industrial robots that are often enclosed in one place for safety reasons, but this is changing.
Take Amazon as an example: in its warehouse, each robot has its own area to cover, learning where to take its inventory from, which is then picked and taken to a member of the warehouse staff for further distribution, or directly onto trucks. Each small orange robot has what resembles a pallet on its back, so each can travel around the warehouse with ease.
By switching the man-to-goods process to goods-to-man, machines like these are just an example of how robotics can be used to revolutionise logistics and maintain a partnership between man and machine.
Because automation is key in the logistics and supply chain sectors, robots are playing a big part in improving levels of automation in warehousing and logistics.
Another example closer to home is a SYSPRO customer that has a fully automated "dark warehouse" - so called because there is no need for lighting - used to more efficiently and securely stock inventory, using robots and motorised racking and stock picking systems.
The fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) and rise of robotics is revolutionising the manufacturing and automotive industries, but adopting cobots will mean a productive partnership rather than a replacement of the human labour force.
Professor Calitz says innovation should be used to support and enhance human productivity rather than replacing it altogether, and innovation should be embraced as a transformative and positive force. SYSPRO sponsors four postgraduate students annually at NMMU University, in the interests of advancing the research of computing science.