Bring on the Bots!

04 February 2015 Manufacturing Industry Advisor Blog

While what constitutes “advanced” constantly evolves, advanced robotic systems have been a reality on manufacturing floors since at least the 1970s. These technological advancements can reduce costs, increase productivity, fulfill unmet needs, replace labor, create new industries, and more. Issues, which have been discussed for decades, related to developments in robotics still concern people today. Some may rightfully worry that robotic advancements will take their jobs or upend their business model. However, such concerns cannot stem the relentless march of technology. Manufacturers and employees accordingly should stay apprised of new developments in the field of robotics. Staying ahead of the curve can provide a competitive advantage or even save one’s livelihood. (Not to mention, keeping up with advancing technology is fun.)

No one can foresee all possible consequences and effects of new technological advancements. Harkening back to the cotton gin and steam engine, who would have guessed how far modern textiles and logistics would come? Often times, unforeseen jobs and even industries emerge from technological advancements and discoveries. While some modern robotics specifically function to replace human labor, other robotic advancements require an active human hand. Still other research does not yet have a clear application or use, and its consequences cannot be predicted.

Robots theoretically increase efficiency and profitability and, therefore, a robot sometimes substitutes for human labor. For example, Boeing announced last July that it would manufacture 777 fuselages using new automated, guided robotics instead of a traditional method utilizing synchronized manual labor. And, last year, Aloft Hotels began testing a robotic bellhop known as “Botlr.” The brains behind Botlr assert that the robotic butler serves to enhance customer service and increase efficiency, not to replace labor. Though the goal may not be replacing labor, it is a likely consequence. These examples illustrate the inevitability of robots performing tasks that otherwise would be performed by a person.

But not all robotic advancements will replace human labor. In some cases, a robot functions only to enhance a human’s capabilities. For example, Vanderbilt engineers are researching new methods to minimize the invasiveness of certain brain surgeries by using robotics. Such a surgery currently requires drilling through the skull, but with a robotic prototype, the entire surgery may be possible with just a prick of the cheek. Using shape-memory alloy and a robotic platform that can withstand the magnetic environment created by an MRI, a surgeon may be able to avoid opening the skull to perform brain surgery.

Other discoveries’ specific applications are not apparent during or even after development. Scientists have been working on advanced robotics that can “see” through objects, including concrete walls. Such technology has a variety of potential applications—search and rescue, law enforcement, and archaeology, just to name a few. Consider another example of innovation. Foldable robots, designed by engineers and computer scientists at two leading universities, save space when not in use and present opportunities for further development.

There can be no denying that sophisticated robotics will only continue to become more advanced. While robotics will take some jobs and change some industries, it will create others. Monitoring these developments will be key to success for businesses and employees alike. Manufacturers need to be aware of what technology is available, so they can incorporate beneficial new developments. Employees must also be aware of coming advancements, so they avoid being caught unaware by industry-changing developments.

This is a decades-old issue and, though technology continues to advance, the right attitude has not changed. Sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring the change around them will never be a recipe for long-term success. Businesses and employees can avoid being left behind by staying informed, so bring on the bots.

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