The concept of human-robotic collaboration is gaining currency. Few doubt that skilled laborers working in tandem with smaller, safer, smarter robots can cut costs and improve productivity for manufacturers while reducing the amount of dull and/or dangerous repetitive work that humans traditionally have taken on.
What is easy to overlook is that to achieve these benefits, manufacturers must develop an integrated human-robotics strategy. This strategy details how the manufacturer will:
Address anthropomorphic behavior issues (that is, how will humans and robots get along).
Scope new data integrations and their impact on workflow (robots can and should communicate with various manufacturing and business systems).
Generate new market channels and revenues by participating in innovation ecosystems.
(View the following video to see why these factors are so important when humans and robots become co-workers.)
Manufacturers can start building effective integrated robotics strategies today, following these broad guidelines.
Redesign work for humans and robots. Next-gen robots are easy to program and use. Yet it’s critical to conduct time-and-motion and ergonomics studies to envision how experienced humans will work alongside robots.
Integrate human and robot teams into the operations environment. Data generated by a team of humans and robots increases in value when it is integrated with a manufacturing execution system (MES) or other control system that feeds data into predictive analytics engines that can anticipate production events.
Collaborate often, in the spirt of total performance improvement. Just as next-gen robots are designed to augment human capabilities, manufacturers must embrace a spirit of collaboration to get full value from deploying robot co-workers. Internally, this collaboration can take the form of a center of excellence(CoE) that takes the lead on developing the integrated robotics strategy and helps identify how it will benefit different business functions.
The CoE also leads the manufacturer’s effort to develop and/or participate in an ecosystem of partners with complementary strengths in developing human and robot co-working teams. A typical ecosystem may include expertise ranging from robot designers and manufacturers to design thinking experts to academic researchers. The goal of these ecosystems will be to create and share technological advances, develop new revenue streams and build new market channels.
Jumpstart experimentation. Don’t wait for an ecosystem to form to start exploring how humans and robots will work together. Competitive offerings, customer wish lists, and employee feedback are all great sources of business intelligence for setting deployment priorities.
Beyond these, we suggest the following:
Create a charter. Robotics is a vast and evolving field, and it’s easy to go down intriguing but ultimately irrelevant rabbit holes. A formal charter can help ensure CoE activities remain aligned with short- and long-term business objectives.
Chart a roadmap. Understand where you are and where you want to go, then detail how you will close the gap between origin and destination points. If capabilities you envision don’t yet exist, these can drive work in the partner ecosystem.
Understand data flows. Data and insights are the keys to getting maximum return from robotics. Right from the start, scope the integrations and interfaces necessary to achieve data flows encompassing all important system, sensor, human and robotic data points.
Experiment and investigate. Run and evaluate pilot projects. Introduce humans to the concept of robotic co-workers with virtual reality tools. Keep abreast of how AI and machine learning shape robotics trends. Share the lessons learned with ecosystem partners. These are all key to deriving sustainable long-term value from integrated robotics strategies.
Taking these steps will also help fuel human imagination and creativity. Those are two necessary (and non-robotic) ingredients for the continuous innovation that will mark the next generation of manufacturing.