Time to Reflect and Look Forward

Recently, while working on the design of a new robotic cell, I was reviewing the parameters of the current class of robots, their abilities and attributes.  Possibly because I recently turned 73, I was also reflecting on my first robotic cell some 30+ years ago.

“Herbie” did what I needed it to do but required a lot of peripheral engineering to accomplish its task.  Herbie was assigned to spray adhesive on chair shells prior to applying the textile cover.  Herbie was hydraulic and as such had limited repeatability, but for spraying he was workable.  Herbie didn’t play nice with his co-workers and had to be penned up, which vastly increased his space requirements.  Herbie was also not terribly bright; in fact, Herbie was extremely dumb.  The “target” had to be accurately placed in a fixed location since Herbie couldn’t “see.”  Herbie had to be told each time he was expected to spray.  If the style of chair changed, Herbie had to be retrained—-every time!  Herbie had limited memory; he could only remember what he was working on at the moment.  Training Herbie to another chair was excruciating, much like teaching a two-year-old. To make matters worse, Herbie wasn’t house broken and piddled hydraulic fluid on the floor incessantly.

Herbie had a short career, less than five years as I recall—but he was a start.  Not long after Herbie gained acceptance, cousins were added.  They were welding robots and servo-driven rather than hydraulic, and far smarter and faster than Herbie—but still they had to be fenced in.  Programming remained cumbersome, but expanded memories allowed quick changing between assemblies and PC interfaces allowed off line programming.

Today, as we move forward into what is being called the fourth Industrial Revolution, I am entertaining an entirely new generation of robots.  Collaborative robots that play nice with their co-workers and fit into existing layouts without pens. They utilize sensors to understand their surroundings and avoid collisions.  Programing is done with very simplified user interfaces using train-by-demonstration methods which do not require extensive training of the “trainer”.  Integration is simplified, making flexibility much improved.  No need to wire the robot into a machine control, the new Herbie can push the start button when he is ready, exactly like his human co-worker.  This generation of robots is becoming a member of the family.  They are easily cross-trained and move about the plant floor as needed without complaint or grievance.

Herbie cost $85,000 30 years ago and the rule of thumb was that usage had to be on a multiple shift operation to justify the investment.  Today’s collaborative robots, that can do Herbie’s job both faster and “smarter,” cost approximately $30,000 and even single shift operation can be economically feasible.

As I think about the changes I have dealt with over the years, there have been three constants—first change itself, secondly the rate of that change continues to accelerate.  The third is the excitement I have with these changes and the opportunities they bring.  Yes, there have been incidents of limited pain, and a few times I have had to back track, but they have been few and they always came with valuable lessons.

Today we are immersed in an expansion of new technology and opportunities greater than at any time in our past. To me that means only one thing: we must embrace these changes and make them work to our advantage or we will very quickly fall so far behind we will find it impossible to stay in the game.

The Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are here now and they are here to stay.  They offer manufactures opportunities for operational improvements we could only imagine just a few years ago.

My cell phone has more computing power and memory than my first desktop PC.  Not only that, it has virtually unlimited ability to “talk” to a host of “things” on command.  I can view a machine’s performance from anywhere at any time and if necessary talk to that machine.  The availability of   new “apps” grows geometrically.

The dissemination of information is limitless and of unlimited value.  I have shelves of books in my office and seldom do I touch them.  I subscribe to cloud-based engineering software services that allow me to do calculations in the cloud in less time than I could find the appropriate formulas in my books.  I can access those cloud-based applications from anywhere—-then send the results anywhere—–all on my cell phone!  I can design a prototype part in CAD on my laptop, send it to a 3D printer and hold it in my hand by the time I get back to the office.

I know that the pace of these changes can be intimidating to some, but the future success of our businesses is inextricably tied to this path of continuous change.  Unless you have a niche business that can continue statically, you have to be willing to learn, evaluate, and embrace those opportunities that can not only keep you in the game but assure your future growth and success.

I’ll leave you with a prophetic quote from Dr. W. Edwards Deming: “No one has to change.  Survival is optional.”