From noise to impact in the real world

From IoT to 5G and artificial intelligence, we are already seeing the convergence of many advanced digital technologies, bringing the physical and digital worlds closer than ever before. The impact of this convergence will be most acute in the industry; Revolutionizing the way we design, plan, operate or deliver consumer-facing products and services. Paul Seely, Director of Technology Strategy, Digital Catapult explains.

Among other trends in the cyber-physical world — such as digital twins or the metaverse — the emergence of remote, autonomous machines is one that manufacturing companies will need to consider: in fact, digital catapult It has identified robotics and autonomous machines as a key trend for 2022 – with the projected global market size for robotics by 2026 to reach £53.8 billion.

While the most famous example of an autonomous system is the so-called “self-driving” car, the pandemic has fueled interest in advanced digital autonomous machines for many other parts of the economy – the manufacturing sector is one.

Where does the noise and excitement stop, and when does the effect begin? What are the biggest challenges in deploying robots and autonomous systems?

Doing heavy lifting for workers

The ability of robots and autonomous systems to assist human workers on the shop floor and in the factory is more than hype – it has already been realized across the UK and beyond.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies provide the power for automated systems, robots, and cobots (bots that can learn multiple tasks to help humans) to help reduce cycle time, work time, and quality errors. At the most basic level, robots can help humans do the “heavy lifting” – as has become common in countries with aging populations, such as Japan.

The main benefits of autonomous robots and machines in factory environments are their ability to perform mundane, repetitive and physically demanding tasks or even hazardous tasks that humans would otherwise have done—for example, National Grid worked with Boston Dynamics, using robots in order to monitor an environment dangerous. This not only protects the safety of the workers but allows them to carry out better quality work by increasing their productivity on the shop floor.

The pandemic has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and we are also seeing a rise in the number of manufacturers doing remote work using a combination of immersive technologies, 5G, and robotics. Ford, for example, is just one company that uses immersive headphones and tools like Microsoft Hololens to conduct remote meetings and train engineers remotely.

Automation of logistics and supply control

Although supply issues are showing signs of easing, challenges encountered over the past two years – from staffing to parts shortages – have revealed systemic deficiencies in the way supply chains are managed that cannot be ignored. Autonomous robots and machines have the potential to relieve at least some of this pressure, particularly in terms of labor shortages.

We’re not at a point where this is common, but thanks to continuous research and development, over the long term, we could see self-driving trucks or robotic drones making deliveries to both urban and remote areas. Right now, for example, an experiment at Nissan’s plant in Sunderland is testing 5G’s ability to increase productivity with autonomous trucks for moving parts.

And autonomous robots can assist with testing, sorting, inspection and construction; Organizations like Ocado already use autonomous machines to support picking and packing processes, and we’ll see these move out of controlled warehouses, for example, autonomous logistics information systems can conduct product delivery surveys.

Addressing waste, emissions and money

With humans generating about 2.12 billion tons of waste every day, the effective use of automation to improve resource management and mitigate the effects of the waste epidemic on our planet is critical. And while waste management in the manufacturing sectors has increased 35% since 2011, there is still work to be done.

Machine intelligence, artificial intelligence, and computer vision allow the effective use of robotics to identify, tag and sort large waste streams. There are also early examples of smart bins and containers, which can communicate with disposal systems or even dump waste at a disposal site, which are getting more and more complex. By exploring technology-led waste management solutions like these, manufacturing leaders will not only benefit from a clean conscience but will ultimately benefit from deeper pockets.

Skills and Ethics

In a seemingly endless skill shortage and recruitment challenges, these advanced technologies present a tremendous opportunity to help train and assist employees in their day-to-day jobs, as well as freeing up employees’ valuable time – allowing them to focus on improving the quality of their work.

However, it is clear that barriers remain to achieving mechanistic autonomy on a large scale. Developing an autonomous robot or system that can handle a number of variables, such as constantly changing fluids or environmental conditions—for example, changing light, temperature, etc.—is a technical challenge, and many autonomous systems require long periods of training on data streams. Autonomous systems are also designed to handle a specific task – a “specialized” robot with dozens of successful use cases in manufacturing has yet to be developed.

At the same time, these systems must be developed in a human-centered manner, with responsible and ethical use of technology at the forefront of mind. This means that they need to be built with benefits to employees and wider stakeholders as a top priority, with as close unbiased input as possible into the development phase. This requires careful coordination and consensus across the industry, which is proving to be challenging to reach. For these reasons, it is important that these systems have diverse inputs as they are developed, and humans must remain involved in key decision-making and operational processes to some extent.

The future of remote and autonomous machines

The opportunities for autonomous machines and robots to respond to some of the biggest challenges we face as a society today – whether economic or social – are endless. However, with the need for automation growing exponentially, we must make sure that we improve the accuracy, reliability and safety of these machines, and that they fit harmoniously into the environment with workers and neighbours, especially if they are operated remotely.

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