How A Human-Robot Collaboration Can Succeed

by Sohini Bagchi    Mar 16, 2017

human robots

Automation is a long-term challenge and opportunity for the economy and global corporations have always used machines to cut costs and boost efficiency, threatening lower-end services. Today, automation is extending beyond factories and distribution centers, thanks to disruptive technologies such as robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, among others that have started replacing human resource in large numbers. In India alone, millions of jobs are at stake in the next five years. However, even amidst crisis, analysts foresee trends indicate that there will be a concentration on the collaboration of human and machine. While the present state of a human-robot collaboration is still nascent, going forward, more enterprises would seek such an arrangement, believes experts.

Right skills - The need of the hour

The trend is already becoming visible, where robots have replaced various human jobs in medicine, journalism, teaching, research and other typical human careers. The list can continue to be long, but experts believe that robotics, AI and other technologies in the digitally disruptive world are unavoidable, in fact these are already becoming a norm.

Read more: Now A Robotic Reporter: A New Era In Journalism?

The need of the hour therefore is to equip people with the right skill sets, as Infosys Chief Executive Officer, Vishal Sikka commented, “Instead of 10 people, what if we have three people to work on it. Having software together with education is something that is critical for our business. This, in essence, is the nature of our journey, if you look at the 3.5 million people in our industry; the only thing that I see in the future is automation.”

Sikka said that advances in computers’ processing speed would lead to exponential growth in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), which in turn would offer plenty of business opportunities.

Robotics expert Len Calderone writes in his blog, “The future will see simplified applications, and light-weight robots. We will also see an increased focus on modular robots and robotic systems, which will be marketed at exceptionally alluring prices.”

It is anticipated that our economy will need to generate about a million jobs a year just to keep up with future growth. Because of the digital revolution, many new jobs have been created, but they are not labor intensive. This is where robots come into play. As the economy expands, we will need both humans for the mental tasks, and robots to handle the tedious and dangerous work, he comments. [Read the full story here]

According to a recently published ASSOCHAM-PwC paper, ‘Artificial Intelligence and Robotics – 2017’, while India is all set to ride the AI wave, the next step is to utilize the big data generated to take intelligent decisions. This would require close collaboration between academia, the private sector and public sector in order to understand problems holistically and solve them.

What Indian companies should do?

Uday Jose, COO of automation firm Enate, believes that even though automation is gradually gaining acceptance as a concept, one size never fits all, and the industry lacks a clear understanding and strategy to implement automation widely and effectively. “One has to manoeuvre the relationship of humans and robots with collaboration, not a competition,” he states.

According to him, “Robots continue to replace manual jobs in a lot of areas, for instance, in large-scale service deliver centres. This type of robot is simply a productivity tool. As smarter cognitive technology is introduced over the next few years, we will still be using this technology to enhance productivity of human-centric environments.”

Jose says, making the most of automation in service industries requires a measured, but agile approach. He mentions a five-point agenda companies should be considering to make the human-robot collaboration a success:

Engagement: Make sure you have a plan and that you’re focused on the problem itself, not just the technology solutions. Make sure your IT and digital team are engaged and on side, so that they can support your vision of automation within operations.

Improvement: Make sure your processes and operations are running smoothly before you begin automating them. Speeding up inefficient, non-standardised or wrong processes won’t help anybody. Get the foundation in shape first.

cobots

Orchestration: Recognise that you are moving from manual, to automated processes. Investing in intelligent orchestration technology will provide you with the tools you need to ensure you’ve got a clear business case for what should be automated first, helping you to get the process right before automation. This technology will provide complete transparency as to whether the automation has worked properly, which will help you stay in control of your automation journey.

Choose the right tool for the job: Utilise the human skills that are deployed in your organisation and then match the right tools - this could be a click bot or a natural language component, a classifier or the rules engine in our automation component.

The right space: Don’t think that smart machines are a replacement for the need for processes, rules and practices. People are still your most valuable asset.

The industries in India, must embrace automation and make it a part of their service-offerings. The West is looking to renegotiate the existing contracts. It is not just about saving the existing business but growing the business as well. Future contracts and a major part of the pie is likely to go to players who have already started the transition, Jose says adding that, in the world of business, there is no scope for stagnation, the only way is to move forward and plan for automation in a way that integrates with a human workforce to boost output, not to compete with it.

The age of cobots

However, as we move towards an increasingly automated world, there have also been debates on how safe it is for humans to exist side-by-side with robots, sharing space and collaborating on tasks? Instances such as robot surpassing safety regulations, entering an unauthorized area and killing workers on assembly line, often hit the headlines and raise concerns about human-robot collaboration

Experts however, agree that the future is moving towards safe and efficient robot-human interaction – dubbed “collaborative robotics” or “cobotics” that  has the power to transform businesses and factory automation. Carmakers and aerospace giants – already heavily automated – have been the earliest adopters, a good example is BMW, a pioneer in adopting a Cobot way back in 2013.

Read more: Breathe Humans, Robots Won’t Take Up All Our Jobs!

Unlike older generations of robots, “cobots” have sensors and safety features that let them detect and react to nearby humans. This allows for the perfect pairing: the machines’ strength and precision with employees’ ability to see, feel, think and adapt, mentions José Saenz, from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation in a recent article.

It’s an amicable relationship for now because humans have skills that are very difficult to program. “There’s a lot of experience and unwritten knowledge that you can’t codify. So a worker might know something doesn’t feel right, or a drill vibrated in the wrong way or something felt too gritty,” explains Saenz. 

Experts believe, the next frontier for collaborative robots is consumer electronics, a sector that’s currently very heavily dependent on manual assembly. Once cobots are well established and tested in industry, they’ll start to appear in both homes and offices. But we may have to wait for a few more years for this trend to hit mainstream.