In 2014, the global population of operational industrial robots reached an estimated 1.47 million units. Their ability to tirelessly execute dull, repetitive or even dangerous tasks has enabled us to take huge leaps forward in manufacturing accuracy and productivity. But what will the future bring?
We haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential opportunities we could grasp thanks to robotics and other developments in global manufacturing. These machines are poised to play a significant role in the work patterns of both developed and developing markets in the decades to come, and in our everyday lives. Coupled with the potential future opportunities likely to arise from the rapid developments in 3D printing in the manufacturing industry, we might well be at the dawn of a new industrial revolution.
Robots can play a huge role in the manufacturing story. According to a recent report by BCG, robotics adoption would boost manufacturing productivity by up to 30 per cent. Their cost being the same wherever they are used, robots can make a big difference in the spread of total labour costs in developed markets. In addition, robots are getting cheaper, more dexterous and easier to operate and could, therefore, help tackle the looming issue of labour shortage in the manufacturing industry in both developed and developing countries as seen in the US, India or China, for example. They are capable of delivering improved productivity and can reduce the need for outsourcing.
Global manufacturing trends The current and future potential of robots is embodied in an exciting prototype of a new robot developed by engineers in Japan. The autonomous dual-arm robot is truly something to behold. At 150 kg, with a tiltable head, two arms that can grasp objects, and cameras for “eyes” in its hands and head, this robot has the ability to recognise 3D objects and make visual inspections. But most exciting of all, he can learn. In my view, a robot like this could help enhance the productivity of re-shoring manufacturing firms, while also giving them a new flexible option for high-mix, low-volume production runs in a world where product life spans are becoming shorter and shorter. In other words, he will bring new opportunity and efficiency to the manufacturing plant.
In addition, technical advances in 3D inkjet printing are likely to further impact the manufacturing industry and could lead to its democratisation by reducing production costs. 3D printers have the potential to revolutionise the manufacturing process and, coupled with autonomous robotics, the possibilities are endless — from revised development and production lead-times, reduced supply chains and just in time solutions, to enabling solutions for immediate, one-off part production at remote engineering sites — anywhere in the world.
There is talk of India’s manufacturing sector touching $1 trillion by 2025 and potential for the sector to account for 25-30 per cent of the country’s GDP. These are ambitious numbers and affordable, high-precision robots and 3D printers will have a significant role to play in making this dream come true. They offer India a chance to truly leapfrog into the league of major global manufacturers.
A vision of the future In addition to manufacturing, robots are likely to play an important part in tackling global trends such as securities shortages — in particular, fuel — and the ageing population. Power generation is a notoriously risky business — from mining to fracking to drilling for oil, to leveraging the opportunity of nuclear solutions, these industries have always had their risks. What if autonomous robots could take on the most dangerous of these tasks and be used to work in the most high-risk locations — a nuclear reactor, for example? With robots, that possibility is approaching faster than you think.
Another area where robots could play an important role is in helping with the ageing population. Every year we add an additional 65 million people to our planet — that’s enough to create a whole new country the size of Spain or Italy. People are living longer too, meaning that many developed markets face the very real issues of how to support and care for their growing numbers of elderly.
Not only this, some analysts believe that in markets where there are high numbers of senior citizens, they will face the challenge of economic productivity decline, slower aggregate GDP growth and/or stagnation. This is a very real threat to any region wishing to retain global influence, as Europe and Japan, no doubt do, and the use of robotics in manufacturing isn’t the only way in which robots can help address this issue.
My future vision sees the capabilities of robotics extending into areas like assistive care, with robots helping us to address the challenges of supporting an ageing population while reducing the cost implications — particularly when you consider their potential once connected to the Internet of Things. As robots, along with other technology products, become increasingly connected, collecting data from all around them and relaying it to the internet — as well as accessing and learning from data gathered by other machines — they will become a very real solution to supporting the service and care industries.
Nothing to fear This support will manifest in multiple ways, not only with basic manual tasks such as lifting and moving, but also more complex tasks such as measuring and sensing for environmental data, recording and reporting changes and fluctuations, and providing data-based recommendations and initiating tasks to apply them. As they progress further to add artificial intelligence to their capacity to learn, they will be a key solution in providing services within the home and care facilities, alleviating resource and labour pressures, and helping to improve service delivery and patient care.
Should we be worried about what we are about to bring to the world? No. My belief is that robots will never be truly ‘intelligent’ — only ever artificially so — and will always rely on humans to ultimately programme and ‘drive’ them. Robots, regardless of how clever, will remain tools. That said, they are tools with enormous potential and power, and we must respect any technological advancement that has the potential to alter social dynamics. It is our responsibility to ensure that they drive positive change.
Robots are destined to help us solve major societal issues such as labour and skills shortages and costs, and will finally realise their potential to release people from ordinary, dull or dangerous manual work, so we can concentrate on work that demands human intelligence. They will be one of the keys to solving numerous fundamental global issues, relieving the pressure on our more finite resources.
The writer is the president of Seiko Epson