Manufacturers that serve many different types of industries are increasingly being sold the idea of easy automation and artificial intelligence (AI) integration. There’s a popular notion that simply adding a robot to a production floor will provide all manner of benefits—from increased output, to reduced reliance on a shrinking pool of human job applicants.
Industrial and assembly line robotics manufacturers have touted their solutions as simple, streamlined technology that can be customized and integrated into just about any type of goods production. Potential customers are promised that these new robots and AI systems are simple to operate and can be fit to just about any production method or practice.
It sounds great in theory, but is it an accurate portrayal of current automation through AI? There are many cases that show the considerable benefits of robots on the factory floor and in the warehouse, but to think that’s proof that robots or AI can be used as a plug-in-and-go solution for all manufacturers might not be a reflection of reality.
MIT Technology Review recently shared some interesting considerations on whether integrating robots into an assembly line is as much of problem-solver for manufacturers as robotics and AI developers love to claim. MIT’s “The Download” technology brief cited Telsa’s recent Model 3 product shut down, which was due to issues with production robots carrying out tasks that had not yet be attempted by an automated system.
MIT also noted a Harvard Business review article that discussed how robot integration can be a mistake if manufacturing methods are not adjusted to technology and away from the human-way of doing things. Production practices defined by human capabilities cannot simply be handed over to a factory robot with flawless results. Instead, manufacturers must first refit their methods to a robot’s capabilities in order to achieve success on a level that justifies such an investment.
BMW’s Spartanburg, SC plant provides an example of automation that better enables productivity through the adoption of “cobotic” capabilities, in which humans and robots work together to complete the door assembly process. When it comes to painting cars in the same factory, the adoption of robots in place of humans hasn’t done anything to benefit production. That’s mostly due to the nature of a process that hasn’t be reworked in accordance with the technology–and as a result the robots end up requiring just as much time to complete a paint job as human workers did.
So are robots the be-all-end-all productivity answer for every company that produces goods, whether a phenolic washer manufacturer, chemical recycler, or an industrial bakery? Even with today’s expansive automation and AI developments, their feasibility and practicality may still be limited to how a production task aligns with a robot’s capabilities, rather than the other way around.