I recently had the opportunity to speak at the 2014 A3 Motion Control Association (MCA) Conference in Orlando. I spoke on how “Collaborative Robotics (cobots) will Change the Way We Approach Automation.” About 30 minutes before I was scheduled to speak, I had an epiphany on what the real ‘message’ of the talk should be. I ended up talking about this:“The real goal of effective automation is to let humans be more human.”
Everyday Life is More Complex
I’ll ask you the same question I opened with at the conference. If you were honest with yourself, would you say that Technology has made your life simpler or more complex?
For me, I would argue that up to this point technology has made my life better, yes, but definitely more complex.
For example, there was a time when we had to send large format prints of machine designs back and forth from customers and machine builders via Fed-Ex or UPS in order to collaborate on the design process. Now we implement Web Based collaboration tools with as many participants as we want, while modifying the designs in real time!
I’d say that qualifies as making life better, but the complexity can be off the chart if all the ‘bits and bytes’ aren’t in the right place. For instance, has anyone ever been hosted a critical webinar and the service kept kicking you off for no apparent reason?? I can’t be alone in that!
Just think about the demands that have come along with these technologies and the complexity it can add to everyday living. How much time do we spend reading and responding to email, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, texts, and watching Webinars or having virtual meetings? What happens when our internet service is down? Or when your computer coughs up a furball and you can’t get online?
The list of the different types of technology we have to interface with on daily basis is astounding!
Any one of these technologies by themselves can be a great productivity tool, but we have created an existence where they are now a ‘necessity’. With that ‘necessity’, they go from being a productivity tool to a crowd of individual demands each clamoring for more of your time.
Collaborative Automation Lets Humans Be More Human
In the world of industrial automation, you can draw a similar picture. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of solution sets that individually can allow our customers be more productive. The challenge comes when you start combining them together – the complexity of the end result can be daunting. Although, this is great job security for the ‘wizards’ that know how to keep this mysterious mix of tech running, is this really what we want from the technology we choose?
No, we would love for the technology to fade into the background where we can focus on what really matters: our customers and our companies. I believe everyone has accepted that the days of having more than enough engineering resources is a thing of the past and that in order to stay competitive, manufacturers need to continually look for better, faster, cheaper ways to produce their products. If these are now the ‘givens’ in today’s market, what is it that will enable us to take it to the next level, to truly simplify the shop floor?
Will it be the automation? Or is it the human potential our companies possess? Ultimately, I believe the real edge will be found in the human potential. The potential to make judgement calls, the ability to extrapolate cause and effect, to think outside the box, to empathize with your target customer, and take pride in creating the best. Once you get past the basic production demands, these are the qualities that can differentiate us from our competitors.
So, how do we access this human potential moving forward? I believe it will happen with the next wave automation, Collaborative Automation. Although I am big fan of them, I was very specific not to narrow the focus solely on Collaborative Robotics (cobots). These robots by themselves will only provide so much benefit if the rest of our automation is ‘still clamoring for our time’. The only way technology will fade into the background is when the entire solution becomes simpler and the combination of the technologies start to free up resources instead of requiring more. In other words, when the individual technologies themselves become collaborative with one another, not just with humans.
Some industries are already grasping this concept and are driving a specification on how a machine’s subsystems are supposed to interact with one another. For example, in the packaging industry there is PackML; and in the semiconductor industry there are the SECS/GEM communications standards. The adoption of these standards is encouraging the controls and hardware manufacturers to conform. These hardware providers are now attempting to produce solutions that will plug into machine design and behave as required, but with much less custom programming and configuration.
In essence, this allows the subsystems of the machine to collaborate with one another, reducing the time machine builders have to spend re-solving the same problem each time they build a new machine.
Taking it one step further, now imagine being able to take this plug and play design concept and using hardware like Collaborative Robots. This hardware that is not only easy to integrate into your machine, but is inherently safe for humans to interact with. Now you not only decrease the burden of writing custom code for each installation, but you remove the productivity barriers that many machine safety solutions being with them. All of a sudden, machine design is simplified and machine builders can get machines to market faster at a more competitive cost, end-users have a lower learning curve, operators aren’t hampered by cumbersome safety guarding, and the individual technologies begin to fade into the background.
With this accomplished, manufacturer’s could focus their ‘Human Potential’ on producing the product their customers want vs. what their machine are limiting them to produce!
I’ll say that again: With this accomplished, manufacturer’s could focus their ‘Human Potential’ on producing the product their customers want vs. what their machine are limiting them to produce!
Over the past two decades we have seen a lot of exciting changes take place in the world of industrial automation. Costs have come down almost in direct proportion to the increase in performance. We can sense, we can position, we can collect and manipulate data better, faster, easier, more reliable than most of us ever dreamed of. Robots are now working side by side with human operators on production lines. There are even lights-out manufacturing facilities with only a skeleton crew maintaining the production of billions of dollars worth of product. It really is awe-inspiring when you consider how far we have come in such a short time.
As grand and important as these changes and accomplishments have been, I believe we have just scratched the surface of what automation can do for us as humans!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.