It’s true, there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ But there is an ‘I’ in ‘collaboration.’ A lot of them, in fact.
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole of Internet of Things or Industry 4.0, let’s take a step back and look at what collaboration really means.
Today the concept of combining digitalization and collaboration to achieve greater convenience is very familiar to us from the consumer world. We have everything from wearable fitness devices that help us monitor our health to sensors in our cars that warn us in advance of the need for maintenance and keep (most of us) from getting lost.
An interesting trend I’ve noticed is a change in the flow of innovation. Traditionally, new technologies found their way from high tech sectors such as aviation and automobile racing into the consumer world in the form of cooler gadgets, new materials, and improved features. Today that is going in reverse –Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets and gamification are now being used to program robots, and QR codes that used to tell you what time a movie was playing are used to monitor the health of industrial drives.
As manufacturers look for new ways to embrace these technologies to create the ‘factory of the future,’ it’s worth taking a look at what Collaboration really means. And just like every factory or plant is different, collaboration means different things to different people.
For some, it means balancing safe workspaces with the imperatives of productivity and flexibility. Automation processes and production flows in the factory of the future will be designed around meeting customer needs – not accommodating capacity-consuming safety barriers.
This becomes more critical as production becomes more sporadic – in many industries the days of making the same thing in large numbers for a long time are over. Today smaller lots of greater variation mean more frequent changeovers, more frequent part and materials changes, and more frequent inspections. In short, people are interacting with robots much more than in the past.
For others, collaboration means robots that are lightweight and portable. Can they occupy a workstation that was designed for people? Can they be relocated on the shop floor, installed and running again in minutes instead of hours?
A natural part of collaboration is simplification – having robots that are intuitive and fast to program for the average worker. When we get a new mobile phone we seldom read the manual – we check that our contacts and apps are setup correctly, and off we go. Advances in software, robot / human interfaces and programming by demonstration are rapidly improving the simplicity of programming a robot. This is one of the key entry barriers for new users – particularly for smaller businesses who could benefit greatly from robot’s flexibility and productivity but lack integration or engineering expertise.
Collaboration also means complete solutions, not a ‘naked’ robot to be integrated. This could apply to an individual cell, such as a complete collaborative robot system with integrated vision and parts feed which can be freely moved around a small machine shop for on-demand assembly tasks. But it could also mean collaboration at the plant level, integrating previously separate islands of automation such as manufacturing and packaging.
So where is this all going? Increased digitalization and collaboration of the entire production process is creating an integrated ecosystem that injects newfound efficiency and flexibility. It allows manufactures to benefit in real-time from better market intelligence and even anticipate some trends, and it provides more satisfying customer experience by aligning the entire value chain. Think an ‘Amazon.com’ type experience in the industrial space, where business ERP and production systems can talk to each other and a customer order triggers coordinated action from procurement to delivery confirmation.
As industry moves in the direction of the flexible and efficient factory of the future, there will be early leaders and laggards like any other evolution. But the big difference this time is that most will not be taking the journey alone, there is a lot of room for collaboration along the way!