A man on the left and a robot arm to the right, both holding the same object

Factory Robotics: The future is in human hands

Everybody is talking about Industry 4.0 at the moment. We talk about Industry 5.0 – bringing the human touch back into production

Super-sized warehouses, filled with assembly lines, conveyor belts and huge, caged industrial robots, welding, palletizing or assembling? Cold bright light and the repetitive pounding noise of machines? When you think about a factory you can be forgiven for bringing these images to mind.

But these are not the kind of factories that Thomas Stensbøl and his colleagues at Universal Robots deal with every day. When the European Factories of the Future Research Association (EFFRA) describes small and medium sized enterprises as “the backbone of manufacturing”. Universal Robots are very much in agreement and they see a bright future for SMEs, where cobots (or collaborative robots) play a vital part.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of a cobot, they’re quite simply a robot that works alongside a human, engaging in the tasks a human just isn’t cut out to do. “To most people, robots are typically within the automotive sector and associated with big dangerous machines behind cages,” says Thomas. “With cobots, the robot has come out of its cage and is working alongside human beings.” But to dismiss collaborative robots as just an ‘extra pair of arms’ feeds into the narrative of ‘robots stealing jobs’, when actually the introduction of cobots into today’s factories has some important and, dare we say it, unexpected potential for their human overlords.

Creating a safe and inclusive workplace, where upskilling is easy

While it is an obvious benefit that a robot can undertake repetitive, dull work and heavy lifting above and beyond human capability, what is rarely mentioned is how this opens up the factory floor to become a more equitable and inclusive place. Working alongside them is safe and easy, as Thomas explains, “We have 17 safety functions in our robot arm meaning that if the robot gets close to you, you can just hold it with your hand, and it stops instantly. Programming has been deliberately made so easy so that anyone can learn it. On our website we have nine modules that last 87 minutes, where anyone can go for free to learn the basics of how to programme our robots.” As a result, at the Universal Robots factory in Denmark, UR cobots are used to assemble their ‘robot cousins’ under the supervision of a workforce that strikes a balance between old and young, male and female and of all physical abilities.

The programming training can be gained through the UR Academy, which currently operates online and in 19 Authorised Training Centres around the world – with an additional 31 more planned to open by the end of the year. The programming interface is similar to that on an iPad, so is familiar and intuitive. “We [Universal Robots] talk about industry 5.0, by which we mean ‘bringing the human touch back into production’. With every industrial revolution we’ve had so far, we’ve put more and more technology into the equation.

First there were mechanics and then electronics, then computers and now it’s robots. But we want to bring the human touch back into it, so we have the combination of humans and robots working together.”

A side view of a robot, with a man standing in the same position behind it.
When cobots take the heavy, dull and repetitive tasks, employees are free to upskill and turn their focus to more strategic roles.

Bringing prestige and productivity back to the factory floor

“We don’t encourage our kids to work in a factory. We encourage them to become doctors and lawyers.” As the potential career spectrum has broadened dramatically in the last thirty years, machine turning, packing and moving boxes from conveyor to conveyor are not an attractive prospect for young people who are entering the world of work. The introduction of robots onto the factory floor not only fills a huge skills gap, but it creates a new level of jobs in the sector – technology jobs. “In a factory where you work with technologies like robots, you get to use your creativity and your brain,” explains Thomas. This means that new young talent will no longer be manning conveyors, but instead may find themselves digitally addressing shifts in consumer demand. If a big industrial robot requires repurposing for a different task, it’s an enormous undertaking. A cobot can be programmed and reprogrammed, deployed and redeployed, sometimes daily, based on the changing needs of a business. This new kind of factory floor career potentially changes the entry level manufacturing role forever and brings with it the cachet of technology.

Growing businesses locally, staying competitive internationally

A cobot is far smaller and cheaper than you might expect, which is why they are very well suited to smaller businesses, looking to grow – or just stay afloat. “We’ll see a company that has been passed down a couple of generations and realise that they have to compete to stay alive,” explains Thomas. Traditionally, these businesses may have been forced to make redundancies and outsource their production to larger, cheaper factories, often in China or Eastern Europe – “It’s now possible for companies to keep production at home.” As previously mentioned, labour shortages mean that these SMEs are also struggling to fill factory roles in low-skilled areas, so bringing a robot onto the shop floor is an extremely cost-effective way to maintain a high level of production, consistency and quality. The knock-on effect of this is that all your core teams remain close together and pricing strategies can remain competitive at both a national and international level.

Industry 5.0: a very human endeavour

It’s a pleasing change to hear about the potential for automation technology to generate career growth, inclusivity and higher productivity in any workplace, but this is only the beginning for what Thomas and Universal Robots term ‘Industry 5.0’. In the next couple of years, SMEs may be seeing their cobots provide valuable data that drives the direction of their businesses. While developments in voice and camera technologies will add new capabilities to the factory floor. Thomas sees a bright future for the sector, and one that is very, very human indeed.

Written by Sarah Vloothuis

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