Smarter robots speed takeover of jobs once done by humans

Bloomberg July 12 | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

At a vast greenhouse in the central Danish city of Odense, a squad of robots move thin plastic pots of herbs for shipping without even putting a dent in them. For movie goers used to seeing humanoid machines in action, that might not seem special but in truth, it’s a remarkable feat.

Robots until recently have been limited to precise, pre-programmed and repetitive heavy-duty jobs like automotive manufacturing. Yet, at the Rosborg Food greenhouse, the OnRobot A/S devices adjust on the fly. One pot might be slightly out of position. The next might be a little heavy.

Robot deliveries

Robots that can see, learn and grip different items are advancing quickly into the retail, food-and-beverage and consumer-packaged-good industries. While deliveries of robots to the US auto industry fell 12 per cent last year, shipments to food and consumer-product companies soared 48 per cent. “The technology is going so fast now, that in two or three years,” said Johnny Albertsen, Rosborg Food Holding A/S’s chief executive officer. He added, “You can make the robot do almost anything.”

The number of jobs lost to automation is difficult to calculate, in part because one lost position often creates several others in new industries.

But almost 40 per cent of US workers are in fields such as retail and food service, for example, that will lose jobs to automation by 2030, according to a McKinsey report published on Thursday. Its slower than a human, but it does not take breaks. It does not go to lunch.

And robots are needed in many industries as companies struggle to find workers. Unfilled positions in the category that includes warehousing jumped in April to a record since at least 2001, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Albertsen expects that improvements in gripping abilities soon will allow robots to pull tender plants from their containers. He plans to expand his crew with more automatons, which pay back the investment in about 18 months.

A single set-up like the one Rosborg uses typically costs about $70,000, which includes the robot, the OnRobot gripper at the end of the robot’s arm and installation.

Polymer grippers

The grippers and the machine’s ability to see are key. Most heavy industrial robots still operate blindly and must be surrounded by cages to keep humans out of harms way. Any variation, such as handling objects with different sizes or textures, were not possible. Now grippers that emulate a gecko’s sticky feet, or use soft polymers that expand to apply just the right amount of pressure, allow robots to take on new, more-nuanced tasks.

AI, through which a machine improve its own performance, will prove key for robots to perform tasks such as folding laundry that are simple for humans but difficult for machines.

Published on July 12, 2019
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