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The Robots Are Here

Disruption and innovation are two key attributes that have found their way into a number of industries today. The automotive industry, in particular, has been an early adopter of robotics and it has shown to be a viable investment. And at present, warehouses and distribution centres (DCs) are in the midst of the new generation automation revolution – where enhanced levels of sensing capabilities and sophisticated algorithms make these machines ‘smart’.

Robotics in the automotive industryProfessor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum and author of the book entitled ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, sets the scene: “There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope and systems impact.

“The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management and governance.”

Rapid advances in a host of technologies, including artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, robotics, Big Data and data science, genetics, medical imaging and computer vision are combining to alter almost every profession and every industry in potentially radical ways, highlights a Bloomberg article published this year.

So how does all of this affect the material handling industry? The recently released ‘Global Automated Materials Handling Market Insights, Opportunity, Analysis, Market Shares And Forecast 2016 – 2022’ report by Occams Business Research and Consulting, shows that the automated material handling market is growing with a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of around 8%, attributed to increasing demand for the automated solution from various applications like manufacturing, automotive and electrical.

“The automotive and electrical industries are the major application where the demand for industrial robots are very high as compared to other applications. In 2015, around 1 500 industrial robots were being used in automotive application for per 10 000 population in USA. Growing expansion of manufacturing facility across the globe, mainly in emerging economies such as India and China, have boosted the requirement for automated material handling across industries.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, around 60 000 industrial robots were sold in China in 2015. In 2016, the demand for industrial robots is around $3 billion in China only. Such high demand for industrial robots in China has been witnessed due to the increasing investment in automation by a wide range of domestic industries in that country,” the report points out.

Some argue that robotics is making people’s work more productive and safer

Of course, a concern remains: what about the workforce? Some argue that robotics is making people’s work more productive and safer, which has a direct effect on the company’s bottom line – it also eliminates the rising cost of pay and finding skilled workers; further, robotics are being employed in work that people are not willing to do, such as performing routine and repetitive tasks.

“Certainly, for robotics to catch on big in cost-conscious DC operations, it’s going to take careful thinking about how to blend what the robots can do with existing automated systems, human labour and material flow. “Mobile autonomous robots for DCs are here, but they won’t come with a C-3PO-like ‘integrator’ robot to blend them into warehouses for us.

That will still be up to people in industry, alongside integrators, consultants, and the robotics providers. “It’s those ‘now what?’ questions about the integration of robots, and how and where to best use them, that need attention going forward,” notes Roberto Michel, an editor at large for Modern Materials Handling magazine.

Tristan Wiggill
Special Features Editor at Business Fleet Africa