Reducing operational expenses while meeting increased consumer demand is a challenge that's driven nearly every industry to embrace automation. The advancement of robotic technology has made it an even more transformative solution. But it may come as a surprise that robots have been supplementing the work of humans since the 1960's. A prototype of George Devals "Programmed Article Transfer Device" was installed on a GM assembly line in 1959. Later referred to as a robotic arm, by 1961 it was the first of its kind to be mass produced for factory automation. The automotive industry was an early adopter, but as robots become less expensive to produce and feature enhanced functionality and dexterity, more industries are deploying them.
With the growing adoption of robots, concerns loom that they will replace humans in the workplace. While select roles and functions may be displaced by robots, at present, robots or cobots ease operations while working alongside a human workforce. OnRobot, a Danish robotics company, has developed a programmable gripper that plugs into a robotic arm to perform a myriad of functions including sanding wood, performing quality control or doing party tricks. Grippers are safely operable by humans and look like a sophisticated arcade claw. Adding it to the production line has helped companies like All Axis Machining, a metal fabricator manufacturing company, continue operations during hard-to-fill shifts. After the introduction of robots, CEO Gary Kuzmin was so impressed by the increase in production and profitability that he went on to launch All Axis Robotics to help other companies incorporate robots into their operations. Kuzmin shared that he wants to "boost productivity, not replace people." With manual labor shifting to robots, humans are being re-trained to operate and manage them.
The transportation industry has embraced robotics through autonomous cars and while tragedy in recent headlines has proven that the technology is not infallible, it does carry with it a promising future where road safety is improved. Alex Rodrigues, co-founder and CEO of Embark Trucks, is building a fleet of highway-ready 18-wheelers equipped with self-driving software. The trucking industry is a $700B market with no signs of slowing and is also experiencing a shortfall of drivers. Rodrigues says they've had success in proving their autonomous driver software is safe and that by licensing it, they are putting safer alternatives on the road.
Retail is playing a large role in the boom of the trucking industry. As e-commerce sales continue to increase, automation has become pivotal - and led to new employment roles - as retailers build complex logistics networks and increase their number of warehouses and fulfillment centers. Robots can reduce the amount of manual labor warehouse workers do by processing and receiving new inventory shipments, retrieving products to be shipped, or preparing packages for shipment. It's true that the introduction of robots can potentially reduce the need for human interaction for select functions, however, increased demand and productivity has overwhelmingly created new job opportunities.
While most robot sales are B2B, if you're holding out hope for a robot for personal use, they may be available in the not-so-distant future. At Docomo's December open house in Tokyo, Toyota treated attendees to a rigorous demo of the T-HR3 humanoid robot over a 5G network. T-HR3 can be controlled through a human avatar-like experience where the controller is strapped into a robot proxy, complete with a headset, to share the same view as the robot. Toyota's intended use for the T-HR3 is to assist humans in daily life activities, but creations like these have endless possibilities as tools for individuals with limited mobility, war zone combat or physically strenuous warehouse jobs.
The common thread among modern day robots is customization. If you've ever lost an afternoon to watching Boston Dynamics robot videos then you've likely heard CEO Marc Raibert say they've designed their latest robot, SpotMini, as a customizable platform. Boston Dynamics is looking to its customers to tell them how their robots can best be utilized, and many robot makers are doing the same. Just as robots and autonomous cars are programed to be "smart" and adapt to their surroundings, the physical appearance and functionality of these devices will adapt as a growing number of industries explore the possibilities of automation and individuals test the boundaries of expanded capabilities.