(Click here to view article in digital edition)
Industry 4.0 is a fascinating development in automation and is indeed worthy of its place in the history of the industrial revolutions that have taken place since the advent of water and steam-powered mechanisation nearly a century ago.
It is impossible to separate the birth of cobots from the evolution of robots in general and of robotic automation in particular. Because of this, cobots share a history and many ideas with the whole universe that the term Industry 4.0 is currently used to cover. As devices, most cobots are fully compatible with Industry 4.0 design principles:
1. Equipped with powerful onboard computers, they are interoperable and easily able to join the Internet of Things (IoT) in any factory environment.
2. They promote information transparency via their ability to collect data and pass it on to other systems for analysis, modelling and so on.
3. They provide technical assistance, in the sense that they “physically support humans by conducting a range of tasks that are unpleasant, too exhausting, or unsafe for their human co-workers.
4. They are able to facilitate decentralised decisions – although cobots are normally used more as tools wielded by their operators than as autonomous entities.
Beyond their innate Industry 4.0 compatibility, cobots have played a major role in enabling companies that might not have been able to afford industrial robots, to start automating their processes.
Because they are versatile, easy to program, small, lightweight and affordable, cobots are being deployed by SMEs, to retrofit older factories belonging to companies that might not be in a position to build a turnkey Industry 4.0 facility, and at companies of all sizes in developing countries.
These same qualities of versatility, user-friendliness, small footprint and affordability, also make cobots eminently suitable for deployment in processes that were not previously automated. By ‘democratising’ robotic automation in this way, cobots help companies everywhere join the latest wave of automation, even if they are not ready to go all the way to Industry 4.0.
The cobot difference
Still, the fundamental collaborative nature of cobots – the fact that they are designed to collaborate with human operators instead of replacing workers in the way that Industry 4.0 would – places cobots apart from, if not diametrically opposed to, the Industry 4.0 worldview. And this difference exposes some significant limitations to the concept of Industry 4.0, and points to something beyond it.
In theory at least, the ultimate goal of Industry 4.0 is the ‘smart factory’ that is fully automated and requires no human presence on site. There are a few factories in operation today that come very near to this ideal. A Philips factory in the Netherlands manufactures electric razors with no human workers except for nine QA specialists deployed at the very end of the manufacturing process.
Interestingly, when cobots are deployed in advanced Industry 4.0 environments, it is often at exactly these few points – such as reworking stations – where human workers are required. This is because cobots can receive instructions from other IoT devices and systems, and with the help of human operators, feed devices and systems with input derived from operator observations; such as one-off change requests and so on.
Despite the touchpoints between cobots and Industry 4.0 there is still a proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. For while the ultimate aim of Industry 4.0 is to do away with factory workers, cobots such as the UR5 are designed to work with humans retained intentionally on the factory floor; factory workers are vital to the success of environments where collaborative robots are deployed.
An alternative view is that factory workers have all sorts of skills, insights and value-adding capabilities that robots will probably never be able to replace, no matter how sophisticated they are or may become.
Robots (including cobots) are quite stupid, really. They follow instructions, and they generate data. Unlike human workers they have no process knowledge. They have no customer knowledge. They have no experience. They have no sophisticated powers of judgement. And they have no creativity. They are nothing beyond what humans tell them to be.
Because of this, a setup where human workers and robots collaborate can do much more than a setup where robots are deployed to replace human workers.
Process control ownership
Another limitation with Industry 4.0 involves the ownership of processes and the knowledge it takes to manage them. The automated systems behind Industry 4.0 environments are often designed, monitored and managed by external consultants.
Yet today, the availability of process knowledge, along with proximity to markets, is displacing low-cost labour as the main criterion when companies choose their manufacturing sites.
When a company outsources the management of automated systems to outsiders, this not only costs time and money. It also saps the company of exactly the kind of human knowledge that the market now demands in a factory.
Because cobots are programmed, configured and controlled locally in the factory, companies that choose the cobot route can retain ownership over their automated processes and the valuable knowledge it takes to manage them. This results in greater operational agility and flexibility, and greater competitive power in world markets.
Customisation to personalisation
The internet connectivity at the core of Industry 4.0 has enabled a new trend towards mass-customised products. Just think of how cars are ordered today – the buyer is able to simply go online and create a highly personalised vehicle unlike any other car of the same make and model in the buyer’s neighbourhood, or even town or city.
Mass customisation is good, but market research shows that consumers want more. Hungry for products, services and experiences with a ‘human touch’ that lets them express themselves, consumers want not just mass customisation, but mass personalisation. This trend could tip the balance towards a more mixed manufacturing environment where cobots and human co-create.
The ultimate goal of Industry 4.0 is the smart factory where cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralised decisions. In contrast, the world’s first commercially successful cobot, emphasised ease of programming, a lightweight design and deployment flexibility; a robot that could serve as a tool for factory workers.
Perhaps the answer is the middle way. One where Industry 4.0 and the cobot combine to deliver the best of both worlds; a smart factory that makes the most of its workers. One that puts people, process and personalisation at the heart of the modern manufacturing company.
About the author:
Mark Gray joined Universal Robots in 2016 where he is UK Sales Manager. Prior to this he was Sales Director for Abtech, a company providing machine vision solutions into the automation industry across a variety of sectors. He has over 15 years’ experience within automation, having also been involved in building special purpose machinery for the packaging industry.
Print this page | E-mail this page
Discover the future of engineering today
Download a copy of our digital magazine