Senior Director of Technology Innovation
Yaskawa America, Motoman Robotics Division
Programmable machines are increasingly joining the ranks of the workforce. Ironically, these machines have been around for 40 years. I call them Generation Bot. Since the 1970s, industry and consumers have seen robots successfully perform highly repetitive tasks where the value proposition was improving the rate of production, controlling or reducing labor costs, ensuring quality, and addressing ergonomic concerns.
For instance, the dramatic improvement in the quality-to-price ratio that consumers see in today’s automobile is a result of the successful use of the evolving robot. How is the robot evolving? Robot life has increased from 5,000 hours to 80,000 hours, its motion smoothness rivals that of a Russian ballerina, and 2D vision applications have become commonplace. Recent advances in 3D vision will incrementally increase the handling application space. Complexity of vision programming still remains a barrier.
During the next ten years, you will see robots perform duties similar to those they handled over the past 40 years, but with an important difference. The environment where robots will perform their tasks will be dramatically different. Instead of automation being designed around robots, these new robots will exist in unstructured environments. You will see flexible plant layouts with humans in the mix. Design engineers and the companies they work for will drive the value proposition by improving human productivity and the product mix, versus simply trying to boost the production rate. To do this, industry will see the deployment of an increasing number of collaborative robots and mobile robots.
With 50 years of robot evolution to draw from, robot makers in the 2030s and beyond will create machines that will perform complex tasks that require human-like cognition. Researchers at Oxford University have stated that nearly 50 percent of jobs in the United States may become automated by the mid-2030s. Many of those jobs will entail repetitive work: the kind of burger-flipping done at a fast food restaurant.
But other jobs will be far more complex than what we are seeing today in our experiments with self-driving cars. These jobs require a high degree of perception (both visual and tactile) combined with the ability to reason for successful error recovery. For industry, these capabilities will usher in the era of complex assembly applications done with increasing accuracy and at a high production rate by robots. In the future, if a job entails some degree of predictability, a candidate from Generation Bot will step in to help.
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