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    New Tech Tuesdays: The Rise of Robot Labor: The Impact of AI and ML on the Workplace

    Join Rudy Ramos for a weekly look at all things interesting, new, and noteworthy for design engineers.

    Buckle up and get ready for a wild ride because the world around us is changing faster than ever before!

    Innovation and technological advancements have become an integral part of our daily lives, transforming the world around us at an unprecedented pace. What once seemed like science fiction is now a reality, with cutting-edge technologies rapidly replacing traditional methods, tools, and to some extent, jobs.

    Out with the Old, In with the Smart

    It seems like just yesterday when we were amazed by the first flip phones and the revolutionary concept of sending a text message. But today, those once cutting-edge devices seem like relics from a bygone era. Each of us has remnants of past electronic gadgets whose time has long passed, except that the time was not that long ago. The time interval keeps getting shorter and shorter before these gadgets become obsolete. The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) brought a new era of connectivity, where everything is smart and interconnected. From our homes to our workplaces, the norm is now a trove of smart devices designed to make our lives easier, more efficient, and more connected than ever before. The pace of technological innovation is mind-boggling, with new advancements emerging daily and rapidly replacing old ways of doing things. It’s hard to keep up with the constant flow of innovation, but it’s also incredibly exciting. From smart homes to self-driving cars, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, with artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and automation at the forefront of this revolution.

    Unlocking the Power of Autonomous Robots

    One of the fastest-growing technological advancements taking place is the evolution of robotics. Robotics technology has been evolving at an accelerated pace in recent years, mostly driven by advances in AI, ML, and other fields. This evolution has given birth to a new breed of autonomous robots that are more versatile, adaptable, and intelligent than ever before, thanks to these technologies.

    Today’s autonomous robots can operate without human intervention. These robots are equipped with advanced embedded sensors, cameras, wireless communications, and a whole host of other tools that allow them to perceive, map, and navigate their environments. They use advanced algorithms to make decisions and perform highly complicated tasks. This is a major departure from earlier generations of stationary robots, which were often limited to simple, repetitive tasks and required human supervision and their own workspace.

    The use of AI and ML has truly unlocked the power of autonomous robots and given them more advanced capabilities. For example, robots can now learn from experience and adapt to new situations, which makes them more flexible and capable of handling complex tasks. They can also communicate with each other and with humans, which allows them to work more efficiently and effectively in collaborative environments.

    The evolution of these robots creates an interesting and very rapidly evolving environment that has the potential to transform many aspects of our lives, including the workplace. Autonomous robots are being employed by companies to take on jobs that, in the not-so-distant past, were performed by fleets of workers who worked long hours to ensure accuracy and efficiency.

    In a recent interview, Texan economist Vance Ginn stated, “The recent coronavirus pandemic has likely contributed to the speed of automation we are seeing in industries like fast food restaurants today.” He went on to say, “The shift to other jobs will take place as has always happened when technology advances and crowds out another industry.” While this might be true, and as we continue to embrace new and exciting robotic technologies, it is also crucial to understand the implications, impact, and opportunities autonomous robots bring to our everyday lives.

    The Rise of Robot Labor

    In 2023, McDonald’s rolled out their first-ever robot restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas. Billed as a “test restaurant,” it features several modes of operation that allow customers to use automated screens to place their orders and then use the drive-thru or the walk-in pick-up kiosks to pick up their orders. According to McDonald’s, this new approach and use of technology is aimed at serving customers in new, innovative ways and concentrates more on order speed and accuracy, making the experience more enjoyable for everyone.

    In other commercial applications, companies are deploying robotic floor scrubbers and sweepers by the hundreds to do more than floor cleaning duties. By now, everyone has seen that seemingly solitary robot relegated to the janitorial duties of cleaning the floors at your local Walmart or Sam’s Wholesale Club. These autonomous robots tirelessly wander around, seemingly cleaning the floor, pausing at every obstacle that comes in their path, and simply waiting for the object to move before proceeding with their janitorial duties. Well, while these autonomous robots are cleaning the floors, what you might not be aware of is that they are also performing other duties. In a recent CNBC article, Anshu Bhardwaj, senior vice president of tech strategy and commercialization at Walmart, stated, “Walmart is using artificial intelligence to improve the customer and employee experience across its 4,700 stores and 600 Sam’s Clubs.” One of the ways that Walmart and Sam’s Club do this is by using floor scrubber robots equipped with inventory intelligence towers to keep track of 6,000 items in stores that average 136,000sf. The scrubber robots take 20 million photos daily. AI and ML can distinguish Kellogg’s Froot Loops from Frosted Flakes and how much of each is on the shelves, with 95 percent accuracy.

    The result, according to the article, is that employee productivity has increased by 15 percent. The increase in employee productivity might be because instead of having stockers first walk the store food aisles looking for missing inventory items that need replenishment, they can now concentrate on pulling only the items identified by the robot as low or empty, which makes stocking and restocking more efficient and allows the staff to focus on other tasks, such as customer service and organizing the shelf displays. With this efficiency and increased accuracy of inventory levels, it’s only a matter of time before autonomous robots do all the stocking and restocking work for Walmart and Sam’s Wholesale Club.

    These use case scenarios exemplify the impact autonomous robots with AI and ML have on jobs and how more companies are employing them to streamline their business operations. AI and ML are making it easier for companies to automate labor-intensive tasks, freeing employees to work on higher-level tasks requiring more skill and creativity. This shift in the workplace will reshape the job market and require employees to develop new skills to remain competitive.

    This week’s New Tech Tuesday looks at a robotics kit from Xilinx and a ToF sensor module from STMicroelectronics. Both parts deliver game-changing solutions to automation and robotics.

    The Xilinx® Kria KR260 Robotics Starter Kit is the ultimate solution for automation design engineers looking to revolutionize their target applications. This all-inclusive kit features a powerful K26 system-on-module (SOM), a cutting-edge robotics carrier card, and a top-of-the-line thermal solution. With the compact SOM boasting key components like a Zynq® UltraScale+™ MPSoC-based silicon device, memory, boot, and a security module, the robotics carrier card offers a plethora of interfacing options, including multiple Ethernet interfaces, SFP+ connectivity, an SLVS-EC sensor interface, and a microSD card. Let’s not forget the thermal solution, which includes a heat sink, a heat sink cover, and a fan. The Kria KR260 Robotics Starter Kit is specifically designed for factory automation, communication, control, and vision applications, with a focus on robotics and machine vision. The Kria KR260 Robotics Starter Kit provides the solutions for both optimizing your production line and enhancing your machine vision and is the ultimate tool for taking your robotics to the next level.

    The VL53L8CX from STMicroelectronics is a revolutionary new generation low-power, 8×8 multizone, ToF ranging sensor. With FlightSense technology from STMicroelectronics, this sensor provides exceptional accuracy ranging up to 400cm with a wide 65° diagonal field of view. The VL53L8CX incorporates an advanced meta-surface lens and a powerful new generation VCSEL, all housed in an innovative “all in one” module that enables a wider variety of high-performance use cases. Whether you need low-power system activation, gesture recognition, SLAM for robotics, or liquid-level monitoring, this sensor has you covered. With patented algorithms from STMicroelectronics, the VL53L8CX can detect and track multiple targets within the field of view with a 64-zone depth measurement, while histograms ensure that cover glass crosstalk immunity is above 60cm. In addition, the VL53L8CX is certified as Class 1 for eye safety. SPI and I2C interfaces ensure high framerates and quick boot times for maximum efficiency. Take advantage of the latest in ToF ranging sensor technology by incorporating the VL53L8CX from STMicroelectronics in your next robotic design.

    Tuesday’s Takeaway

    Autonomous robots offer a game-changing solution for businesses. Robot deployment to perform labor-intensive tasks is becoming more widespread. More companies are turning to AI and ML-powered autonomous robots to automate tasks that human employees traditionally do. As robots become more advanced and widespread, employees must stay up to date with the latest technologies and develop their higher-level cognitive skills and creativity for the marketplace.

    Rudy is a member of the Technical Content Marketing team at Mouser Electronics.
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