Autonomous Robots in Manufacturing: Pros and Cons

    Robotic systems have been crucial to modern manufacturing since their introduction to the industry in 1961 by inventor George Devol. With the first manufacturing-centred robotics executing repeated, monotonous tasks, robots quickly replaced traditional assembly line workers and allowed for high-quality manufacturing processes that were safer, more efficient, and consistent.

    As manufacturing robotics hardware and software improved, complex automated systems quickly became the standard for most high-end manufacturing processes. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, autonomous robots in the manufacturing industry have become a new frontier for the industry with the same goals as their predecessors: to increase process safety, efficiency, and quality while limiting the impact of human-based challenges to manufacturing and facility management.

    However, the implementation of autonomous robots can be very challenging and risky in some circumstances. This article explores the pros and cons of using autonomous robots and manufacturing and their potential value to the growth of Industry 4.0.

    What Are Autonomous Manufacturing Robots?

    Whereas traditional manufacturing robots are programmed to complete a single, repeatable series of actions, autonomous robots do not repeat specific actions. Rather, autonomous robots are programmed to perform tasks with minimal interaction from humans and wield the ability to adjust their operations based on diverse conditions. Autonomous robots are able to work side-by-side with humans or, in some cases, fully replace a human-based manufacturing position.

    In modern autonomous robot manufacturing applications, robots have not fully replaced humans but have rather replaced tasks that humans should not do, do poorly, or do not want to do. The targeted implementation of autonomous robots has already driven drastic increases in productivity for the applications they are deployed in, but autonomous robotics still has a long way to go before achieving Industry 4.0 and fully replacing all manufacturing positions in all sectors.

    The Cons of Autonomous Robots in Manufacturing

    Capital Cost

    The largest barrier to entry for most autonomous robots in manufacturing and Industry 4.0 applications is the upfront cost. Enabling autonomous robots requires material capital investment, integration into the existing supply chain, tangential training, and supply chain adjustments to accommodate autonomous machines.

    In some applications, such as warehouse inventory management, autonomous robots are more easily implemented and the factors that drastically increase costs can be mitigated. However, high-end applications such as automotive manufacturing can require fully custom turnkey autonomous robots that are specifically designed for highly specialized tasks.

    Functional Expertise

    Autonomous robots can be very challenging to operationally manage. While autonomous manufacturing robots aim to relieve humans of tasks, they require highly trained technicians to maintain them. In autonomous robotics, the hardware itself is often very complex and sensitive, requiring highly sensitive, high-throughput processors, sensors, and electromechanical systems. Additionally, the software that commands autonomous robotics is even more complex than the hardware, requiring data centers to train the AI models that autonomously control the robot. Any modifications to either the hardware or software systems require a team of technicians, engineers, and resources.

    The Pros of Autonomous Robots in Manufacturing

    While the barriers to entry into autonomous robots in manufacturing are very high, the benefits of implementing autonomous robots into many manufacturing supply chains are incredible.

    Labor and Utilization Stability

    One of the most impactful benefits of autonomous robots is that efficiency of monotonous tasks increases, allowing humans to better allocate their labor skills toward more effective jobs. Collaborative robots in manufacturing are essential to productivity and labor utilization. For example, an autonomous robot working in an assembly line may be able to complete tasks without constant supervision, allowing human labor to intermittently monitor many robots and work in conjunction with the autonomous robot by performing strategic, non-automatable tasks.

    Reduce Error Rate

    For the large amount of pride that humans have, they lack an equal amount of accuracy; humans make mistakes. Properly trained robots can significantly reduce error in the manufacturing process as they can be more sensitive to the conditions they are in, more accurate with the actions they take, and less prone to distraction, fatigue, injury, and bio-breaks.

    Long-Term Costs

    While their initial investment can be extremely large, the long-term costs of autonomous robots can be much less than that of a human workforce. Autonomous robots have the potential to decrease the direct and indirect costs of manufacturing processes. Direct costs can be significantly reduced by using autonomous robots, as they can be more accurate than humans by ultimately producing less raw material waste, limiting the number of manufacturing supplies needed, and reducing labor costs.

    Autonomous robots are not subject to traditional challenges associated with labor forces, such as merit increases, inflation costs, insurance, paid vacation, and so on. Additionally, autonomous robots can reduce the indirect operating costs of a company including supplies, utilities, office equipment, occasional pizza parties, and even parking space.

    Increase in Human Safety

    One of the most intrinsically valuable aspects of autonomous robots in manufacturing is their inherent contribution to increasing human safety. The most desirable job applications for industrial automation are high-risk manufacturing environments such as metal fabrication, transportation, food processing, chemical processes, and raw material processing. In any application where human life is at risk and action can be taken to preserve it, the upfront costs of moving towards automation often pale in comparison to the value of mitigating danger.

    Improve Data Collection

    As the world continues to be more automated and documented, supply chain digitization strategies are quickly adopted. For example, automated package handling not only optimizes the actual process of moving the package, but also drastically improves the process of documenting the package’s handling. As automated robotics become more involved, they can simultaneously track packages digitally, therefore documenting every step of a package’s journey while ensuring operational supply chains are as optimized as possible.

    Cost Versus Benefit of Robotics in Automotive Manufacturing

    As is true with nearly all industries, there is always room for improvement in the world of autonomous robotics for manufacturing applications. The startup cost is oftentimes a barrier to entry for most companies, yet the value of implementing autonomous robots is apparent. The end-to-end improvements to Industry 4.0 processes and manufacturing supply chains can optimize labor productivity, increase human safety, reduce operating costs, and limit the risks of human error. Needless to say, manufacturing is hastily moving towards Industry 4.0 as the adoption of autonomous robots in manufacturing applications grows around the world, similar to how robots quickly grew in popularity in the mid-20th century.

    Courtesy: Arrow Electronics

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