You’ve seen robots evolve on the silver screen: From the eminently forgettable bug-eyed Ro-Man of Robot Monster (1953)[i] to the absolutely adorable C-3PO of Star Wars[ii] and the ground breaking synthetic intelligence of Ava in Ex Machina (2014)[iii]. Robots in real life too have been evolving—not quite as fast, but now spurred by COVID-19, they are evolving faster and being deployed with urgency that the world has not seen before. Their role: To keep humans safe while keeping the wheels of industry turning.
It is hard to miss this new breed of robots. They are bravely going where humans tread with caution. Spot, the Boston Dynamics robot dog was seen patrolling the Bishan-Ang Moh Kio Park in Singapore, armed with a camera, to ensure social distancing.[iv] In Bangkok’s Central World mall, robots were deployed to distribute hand sanitizer to shoppers and direct them to bathrooms while using a thermal scanner to take temperatures.[v] In Rwanda, five anti-epidemic robots were screening between 50 and 150 people per minute to monitor COVID-19 patients and maintain their medical records.[vi] In Chennai, robots were serving food and delivering medication to patients at a hospital, keeping medical staff insulated from infection.[vii]
The performance of these robots is inspiring industries such as Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG), Retail, Distribution and Transportation, Manufacturing and Healthcare to adopt robots in a variety of operational functions. These robots will help businesses get back to a normal state of functioning as quickly as possible while keeping employees safe.
New normal with new robots
Industrial robots are not new. But after decades of being confined to low level jobs—welding, painting, assembling, picking and placing, palletizing and inspecting all kinds of things—they are undergoing an intense makeover. They have rapidly grown in capability, stature and significance. Today, the seemingly ungainly robotic arms used on assembly lines of auto and aircraft manufacturers are ready to be infused with intelligence and awareness. COVID-19 is accelerating this transformation and bringing explosive growth to the robotics market. A 2020 supply chain survey, conducted under the shadow of the spreading pandemic, had 73% of respondents stating that robotics will be significant or imperative to their company in the following three years.[viii]
The emphasis on development over the next 6 to 12 months will be on robots that can:
Keep humans safe
- Use vision-based navigation to fly around in warehouses to capture images of racks/pallets, allowing managers to locate items, move them and complete stocktaking without human contact
- Self-deploy to disinfect hospitals using ultraviolet, handle samples and lab work, dispose contagious hospital waste, and monitor isolation wards[ix]
- Deliver (in the form of autonomous vehicles—one example being the robots used by DoorDash in the US) a variety of packages to customers ranging from mail to medicines and food[x]
Keep the wheels of industry turning
- Palletize and de-palletize items from conveyer belts or fixed location, identify and fix anomalies on conveyor, pick the cartons and place them on pallets, pick the cartons from the pallet and place them on conveyer for further operations/dispatch, package finished products, etc., in the CPG, Retail, Healthcare and Manufacturing industries
- Climb poles to fix electrical distribution lines[xi]
Forced into accelerated evolution
Propelled by COVID-19, leading manufacturers of industrial robots will accelerate the evolution of their machines to serve broader markets instead of relying on automobile and smart phone manufacturers for growth. This new breed of robots will be able to turn new tricks for a variety of industries that want to improve safety, quality and efficiency. Therefore, while industrial robots will continue to be deployed for the 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs, they will quickly evolve, acquiring the ability of sophisticated movement, better hand-eye (camera) coordination, situational awareness, and responsiveness to external stimuli.
Already, robots with a sense of smell are turning up. They have the ability to even read messages written on the ground using odors as a barcode[xii]. And cyborgs—bio hybrids—are about to show up in the neighborhood. Bio hybrids sport muscle tissue grown from hydrogel sheets impregnated with myoblasts. The next step is to provide the muscles with electrical stimulus to induce contraction and expansion[xiii]. With industrial robots developing their primary senses, we are at the cusp of rapid evolution.
Betting on man-machine collaboration
Recent research shows that when humans and robots team up, they function better than just human teams or robot teams alone[xiv]. This is counter intuitive and unexpected, but should, in fact, be self-evident. The popular belief that completely automated systems are capable of the highest levels of performance, efficiency and safety is not entirely true. This explains why autonomous cars, the most sophisticated form of robotics we have seen, are tested between Level 3 and 4 standards, which require some form of driver assistance and engagement[xv]. A low-end example of man-machine collaboration is the use of over 100,000 warehouse robots by Amazon. The online retailer uses the robots to enhance the performance of its employees.[xvi] There is much to be gained from man-machine collaboration and there is little doubt that it will be the preferred way forward for decades to come.
Between the sophisticated autonomous car and the rudimentary warehouse robots is a vast playground of robots for every industrial use. A company like Boston Dynamics[xvii] could end up changing industrial processes at the hands of its robot army. This breed of robots are being armed with software, connectivity, machine learning, stable bipedal locomotion, 360 degree computer vision, perception to neutralize tricky lighting conditions, and shape shifting capabilities (they can re-configure themselves) to operate in different environments and carry out different tasks.
Plugging into enterprise intelligence
Robotics is poised at just the right point where early adopters will gain a significant understanding of how these machines can become the new demographic that brings with it a special set of skills. The early adopters will be able to acquire data from their fleet of robots and inject the data into their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). Once integrated with ERP, the insights could lead to totally new processes and systems. In addition, with the ability to almost instantly “re-skill” robots at scale, organizations would become agile and have the potential to develop faster go-to-market strategies. The opportunity right now is to explore ways of integrating robots with smart plants, manufacturing systems and enterprise intelligence.
COVID-19 has knocked out sophisticated supply chains built over decades. Manufacturing and fulfilment centers had to be shut down. Malls and high street stores were closing their doors to keep employees safe. Public transport came to a standstill because of strict social distancing norms. Medical staff at hospitals and clinics wasn’t adequately protected by Personal Protective Equipment. For these industries, ranging from CPG to Retail, Distribution and Transportation, Manufacturing and Healthcare, the solution is to move the acquisition of robots on top of their near-term agenda. As robots become infused with intelligence, they will be able to function in complex environments and trigger a faster evolution of healthy man-machine collaboration. Building a resilient future with a new breed of robots will be the new normal. Thoughts?
[xiv] International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00170-019-03785-0