How robots are set to move into every facet of our working lives
Robots in the workplace, and workers’ suspicions of them is nothing new, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis documented the rise of the machines (and their ultimate demise) way before the Terminator franchise and I, Robot became box office smashes.
Yet for years workers remained assured that the reality of robotics was far more mundane, taking the form of heavy automated and caged industrial equipment used to assemble cars or manufacture packaged goods in a factory.
Yet robotics usage today is neither of these things, according to the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which predicts that “today’s robots are designed to work alongside, move amongst, and be worn by human workers”.
Robots are also key to the future of work outside the factory floor, spanning industries from travel and hospitality, healthcare and assisted living, education, and even traditional offices.
Apart from industrial robotics arms, more form factors have emerged in recent years, such as Collaborative Robots (cobots), Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS), and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
A common denominator across all these types is their ability to perceive and make sense of their surrounding environment. According to ABI Research, this autonomy is enabled through ML models such as object detection, localisation and collision avoidance, motion planning for navigation and manipulation, pose estimation, and sensor integration.
Both AGVs and AMRs are deployed in warehouses for intralogistics, an application that includes various sub-applications such as material handling, machine tending, as well as bin-picking. This has industry-wide usage ranging from automotive, chemicals, electrical and electronics to food and beverages; and is “currently booming”, according to analysts.
As a result, the intralogistics market for mobile robots in manufacturing is expected to grow from $9bn in 2022 to top $36bn by 2030 according to ABI Research.
Recent strains on supply systems and product gaps have highlighted the need for better supply chain efficiency. Various industries have also been affected by labour shortages caused by safety regulations and sickness.
“Assembly lines will be supported by industrial robotics and automated solutions, and smart factories will become ubiquitous,” says Analytics Insight charting the rise of the ‘Smart Factory’. “As a result, we anticipate operations that are faster, more efficient, and more precise, with fewer inconsistencies.”
AMRs are increasingly being programmed to perform work, like moving heavy products, alongside human employees. These cobots are marketed by vendors as your “ideal co-worker,” their introduction intended to fill gaps in the labour force, boost productivity (robots can’t walk out over pay) and (apparently) to be actively welcomed by existing staff.
“The addition of robotics and automation to the manufacturing industry has sparked concerns about possible negative impact on the workforce,” admits Locus Robotics which makes autonomous solutions for the warehouse.
“What manufacturing trends are showing is just the opposite – robots and people working together, collaboratively, in factories and warehouses can get more work done, faster and more safely.”
Locus AMRs, the company insists, not only make workers more efficient, but they help to improve the workplace by reducing fatigue and improving safety.
These claims of robotic efficiency are backed up by the stats – albeit ones cherrypicked by Locus. For example, in traditional ‘order fulfilment’ roles – the physical act of walking to pick product – accounts for 50% of the entire process, eating up valuable time and money.
If a human worker typically picks between 60 and 80 orders an hour, an automated system can pick up to 300 in the same time frame, according to Westernacher Consulting.
Locus Robotics quotes its customer Kenco testifying to improvements in productivity. “We were at 30-40 units per hour per picker,” said Kristi Montgomery, VP of Innovation, R&D. “We’re now in the range of anywhere from 120-150 units per hour. We’ve also increased our volume and throughput and increased our visibility to what’s happening on the floor.”
Another study, by MIT for BMW in 2015, found that robots and humans working together are 85% more productive than humans working alone.
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Cobotics are also servicing other aspects of daily life. In a trend that jump-started under Covid-19, increased hygiene demands opened the door for cleaning and disinfection service robots.
“Demand for the quality of customer service and guest experience has never been higher, but there is a labour sourcing crisis that is stopping service providers from delivering,” says Stefano Bensi, GM of SoftBank Robotics UK. “Add to that the general level of anxiety concerning cleanliness and hygiene, and we can see that many industries have an opportunity to take advantage of [cobotics].”
An autonomous robot vacuum, like Whiz from Softbank Robotics, can be used to automatically clean the floors of entire office buildings, healthcare facilities, residential buildings, and school campuses.
Like Locus, SoftBank claims that cobots don’t replace human jobs, but allow staff to focus their hours on higher-value activities. While leaving repetitive tasks like vacuuming for the bot “existing cleaning staff can then relocate their time to higher-value services like disinfecting, deep cleaning, and polishing.” Cleaning teams using its product report a 25% boost in efficiency, it claims, not least in “preventing overtime costs” to achieve the same results.
“Many organisations are implementing robot manager roles that allow their team to gain new and in-demand technology skills–engaging and rewarding work,” SoftBank asserts in a recent blog. “It’s a formula that’s proven to work well in manufacturing, where the presence of robots works to create new, higher-paying jobs.”
SoftBank further claims that physical robots, including its vacuum cleaners, “have an unmistakable charm” that adds to a “positive employee experience.”
There is a widespread perception that automation may eliminate jobs but Deloitte found that 74% of executives responding to its 2019 survey believe their workforce is either supportive or highly supportive of their intelligent automation strategy. The perceived level of stakeholder support tends to grow significantly as organisations add more automation into their business.
In this survey, 32% of executives whose organisations are piloting automation said their workforce is unsupportive, compared to just 12% in organisations which are implementing or scaling it up.
There is, though, a cost-saving for companies in junking the janitor for a robotic hoover. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there are 2,384,600 building cleaners in the United States and that companies are spending about $60bn on them annually. This is exclusive of the insurance amount that has become expensive, as the janitorial industry records one of the highest numbers of occupational injuries.
Factors like these are boosting the demand for cleaning robots, says analyst Mordor, though another analyst notes that high cost of installation, coupled with the high cost of maintenance of the robot vacuum cleaners, is hindering market growth.
The ageing population, in which the over 65s will account for 16% of the global total by 2050 [source: UN], is one of the primary factors for the significant growth in deploying robots everywhere from hotels to assisted living facilities to office parks. These robots can be used to run errands like delivering food on demand.
The last-mile delivery and retail robotics market is expected to grow from less than $1bn and $1.3bn in 2022 to $16.2bn and $8.4bn by 2030, respectively, according to ABI Research.
Spend on all types of service bots might reach $70bn by 2032, predicts IDTechEx.
“One of the most important problems which we are trying to solve with these autonomous delivery robots is around labour shortages,” Ritukar Vijay, co-founder and CEO of robot-maker Ottonomy.IO, told TechCrunch.
According to Vijay, Ottonomy’s proprietary contextual mobility navigation software enables Ottobot to navigate through crowded and unpredictable environments.
Fitted with 3D lidar sensors and cameras, Ottonomy’s robots can manoeuvre through crowds indoors and out, delivering food, parcels or equipment in compartments that are as large as a standard shopping cart.
The firm has run pilots at Cincinnati airport allowing passengers to order food and retail items from an app and have them delivered to them at their gate. It has also conducted pilots with US retailers offering customers a contactless curbside pickup coordinated by an app where the robots bring orders to customers’ vehicles.
“We’re not replacing people because the fact is that the labour shortage is so high that there’s already a crunch in the staff with our current customers,” Vijay told Fox Business. “What’s happening is we are enabling the minimal staff to do more and making sure that the end customer is not paying for the extra service.”
So far, Ottonomy has not met the fate of Amazon’s recent attempt to automate home delivery. Development of the retail giant’s bot Scout was halted due to a failure to meet customer expectations.
Moving forward, ABI Research expects AMRs and quadruped (four-legged, dog-like) robots to become more prominent in delivery, data collection, security and cleaning. Mention of quadruped robots might raise an eyebrow, but anthropomorphic bots are on the march too.
“We are able to build intelligent anthropomorphic machines capable of interacting with humans and adapting to surrounding environments,” says SoftBank which developed ‘Pepper’ a humanoid robot intended for customer-facing roles such a in retail, hospitality and banking.
Pepper incorporates a natural language engine and Machine Learning to communicate by voice and its ‘personality’ can be customised to fit the brand using it.
A partner in the project, automation specialists Sprint Replay, says the robot’s human-like appearance makes it a magnet for people; “In a public space, Pepper easily attracts a crowd of people and, thanks to its abilities, the robot is able to entertain and keep their attention, describing a product and providing a wide range of value-added services.”
Billionaire entrepreneur and new owner of Twitter Elon Musk is placing a bet that such social robots will soon become integral to our lives.
At Tesla’s AI labs, the tech entrepreneur is building a humanoid robot dubbed Optimus (presumably after the heroic Transformers character, although Optimus itself resembles Terminator). Musk claimed in October that it could eventually end poverty.
While less sophisticated than Boston Dynamics’ parkour capable Atlas robot, Optimus is significant given Musk’s history in bringing future tech into the present. It’s intended to do menial labour tasks and would likely be deployed in Tesla factories – at first.
“The foundation of the economy is labour,” Musk said in an earning call last January. “Capital equipment is distilled labour. So, what happens if you don’t have a labour shortage? I’m not sure what an economy even means at that point. That’s what Optimus is about.”
Developers at Tesla can port the same computer vision technology behind its self-driving cars into the robot. It also employs a complex four-bar hinging mechanism similar to the human knee that adapts an actuator’s differing needs for strength or speed depending on how far the knee is bent. Basically, it can lift far greater loads than any human.
“We are trying to follow the goal of fastest path to a useful robot that can be made at volume,” Musk said at the October presentation, estimating that the Tesla bot could be commercially available within three to five years costing around $20,000.
“This means a future of abundance, a future where there is no poverty, where people, you can have whatever you want, in terms of products and services. It really is a fundamental transformation of civilisation as we know it.”
Some analysts think it is these robots rather than its automotives that will give Tesla greater long-term profitability.
“We wouldn’t be surprised to see it becoming the primary driver of the stock price towards the end of the decade,” New Street Research analyst Pierre Ferragu said. “Imagine Optimus as a start-up today: It could be valued at several billion dollars, maybe even a few tens.”
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