Reaping The Benefits Of Robotics

New types of robots are providing opportunities for logistics, manufacturing and other industries, while enabling workers to do what they do best: interacting and performing more highly skilled jobs.

By Sue Doerfler

In robotics, like in supply management organizations, agility is key. New technologies, applications and capabilities are propelling robot use into mainstay status at companies that consider it necessary to compete in the global marketplace.

An estimated 250,000 robots are in use in the U.S., which ranks third in the world after Japan and China, according to the Robotic Industries Association, a trade organization. During the first quarter of 2018, a record number of robots (10,730, valued at US$507 million) were shipped to North American companies, the group reports.

“There has been a proliferation of robotics technologies over the past couple of years that has allowed more companies and new industries to reap the benefits of robotics and automation,” says Bob Doyle, the association’s vice president.

Robots are valued because they perform repetitive tasks more quickly — and often with better quality — than their human counterparts. What began as rigid automation used primarily by the automotive industry has now become a more flexible tool that does a variety of jobs. It can move products from Point A to Point B, work collaboratively with humans, and pick, pack, load and ship materials, freeing up the humans who previously did such repetitive tasks to do higher-impact jobs that create more value.

The industrial robotic arm, which has seen many incarnations in the 50 years since it was first developed, is perhaps the most well-known. Among newer robots on the scene are:

Wheeled (mobile) or unmanned robots that can move goods around warehouses and other locations

Autonomous vehicles, which are changing how transportation and delivery are done

Highly specialized robots, such as autonomous underwater vehicles that can perform aquatic inspections and maintenance on equipment such as oil rigs and aquatic marine fleets that are difficult for humans to do.

Other robots can maneuver on uneven terrain and around obstacle-filled locations. These include humanoid robots (which remain uncommon) and drones, which can do more than pizza or package delivery, says Gary Hanifan, managing director at Accenture Strategy. “Say you are reseeding a forested area with fir trees,” he says. “Drones can do that at a rate far exceeding what a human could do, and more safely than having someone traverse that rugged terrain.”

Additionally, other technologies are on the periphery of robotics. These include robotic process automation — which isn’t a physical robot, but a technology that enables automation of repeatable business processes, particularly financial tasks — as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

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