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How Smart Factories Are Transforming Manufacturing as We Know It

There’s an amazing thing happening on factory floors around the world today—something that consumers are only just beginning to witness its dramatic impact on their daily lives.

If that statement surprises you, it’s no wonder. While robots have been in use for decades to provide basic automation, even the most advanced of these machines were confined to a corner where they completed basic, repetitive tasks. After all, although Henry Ford introduced the first assembly line for his Model T more than 100 years ago, that huge achievement is the first (and perhaps the only) thing that comes to mind when most people think of advancements on the factory floor.

Oh, how times have changed.

Thanks to the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), robots have come to life on the factory floor. Similar to the development of driverless cars, today’s robots are able to not only sense, see, and process information, but also to integrate that information into how they “think”, reacting to their surroundings to initiate appropriate action.

What does that mean for manufacturers and consumers in the real world?

  • In automotive production, the Audi A4 is now available in four millionconfigurations. Gone are the days when human workers have to facilitate a factory changeover for each new request or determine which combinations support compatible parts. Robots are able to handle it all—in less time, and with a higher level of precision and quality than ever before.
  • Because AI systems are able to anticipate demand at high levels of accuracy, the average time a part is on the factory floor before it is installed into a product is less than eight minutes. As these abilities continue to grow, factories will be able to further accelerate customization, minimize shelf time, and maximize the cost benefits of true just-in-time manufacturing.
  • Using the power of big data, AI is able to better predict the need for preventive maintenance, eliminate scrap production by halting processes at just the right time, and identify seasonal or predictive trends to prevent over- and under-production of nearly everything—from red and green M&Ms in December to sunscreen in July.
  • Agricultural robots can now determine when an individual plant needs a specific nutrient, or if it is fighting a disease or battling an infestation. They can then determine what action to take—such as adding a nutrient to the water for a single plant—and can even be taught how to pick and pack even the most delicate fruits and vegetables with less damage than a human worker.
  • Surgical co-bots (human-assisted robots) help surgeons perform operations with greater speed and precision than is possible by humans acting alone. This level of precision supports less invasive procedures and better patient outcomes, and enables the most experienced surgeons to continue to extend their careers years longer.

Related: At Tokyo's International Robotics Exhibition, Innovation Was the Star

Of course, this is just the beginning. AI is advancing at an incredible pace, and just as Henry Ford could never have imagined that mobile Kiva robots would dominate today’s factory floors, robotics experts are finding it difficult to paint a clear picture of what the future holds. But there are some things we do know are coming our way for certain:

  • In the very near future, robots will work shoulder to shoulder with humans. This capability requires social modeling of human cognition, including communication, natural language, common ground, and learning, and all of these nuanced skills are supported by AI technologies that are already available today. Rather than a programmer specifying coordinates and specific motions to empower a robot to do its job, tomorrow’s robots will be able to learn by example and demonstration. Imagine being able to tell a robot what needs to be done, and have it immediately tackle the task.
  • This level of “learnability” will open the door for robots to go where they’ve never gone before: into smaller enterprises that engage in batch production. In the past, the cost of retooling robotics for small batches wiped out any benefit. Once robots can be trained for simple operations that can be adapted to specific tasks, the need to retool will be eliminated. This next generation of “smart robots” will increase reliability, decrease risks, and decrease costs for companies of every size.
  • Robots will also take quality to a whole new level. For countries like China that have a desperate need to improve quality, this capability will change the landscape entirely. Because robots never lose attention, they are able to complete simple manufacturing operations with greater accuracy. When tackling more complex tasks that require making critical evaluations, robots are much more reliable than humans who may become drowsy or bored. For activities in which a single mistake can be critical—driving, pathology, radiology, surveillance—AI systems are much more consistent and accurate. Plus, they can learn on their own. With the ability to read and understand technical literature, robots will soon exceed the expertise of humans in nearly every field. 

Robotics and AI have long been popular themes in science fiction, but today’s reality is outstripping even most sci-fi fantasies. Henry Ford would be more than amazed at how far we’ve come. And yet, as the confluence of technical advances and readiness comes together to form a perfect storm for robotic advancements, every one of us should be prepared to have our minds blown.


Written by: William Studebaker, CIO ROBO Globa

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