Overtaking Industry 4.0: the coming of the cobots

Will robots take our jobs? Or will they provide new opportunities for better working conditions for manufacturing workers? In his presentation at AUSPACK 2019, Universal Robots’ Peter Hern said the introduction of collaborative robots into firms is bringing the human element back in an age of machines and computers.

AUSPACK 2019, Australia’s largest packaging and processing conference and exhibition, saw thousands descend on Melbourne Convention Centre in late March to see and hear the latest in technologies and solutions. For the most part, much of the talk was around Industry 4.0 and how important it is for companies to get on board with developments in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and embrace the data and digitisation revolution.

With so many eager to learn how best to take on these developments, talk of development beyond Industry 4.0, about what comes next, might seem premature. Not to Peter Hern, the Country Manager and Sales Development Manager at Universal Robots Southeast Asia and Oceania, who said that the time was now to start looking ahead towards Industry 5.0.

“Whenever I talk about this, a lot of people say, ‘Industry 5.0? How is this all happening? We’re not even up to speed on Industry 4.0!’ The reality is that technology changes exponentially, while organisations change logarithmically,” Hern said. “And that is always going to be the challenge. Technology will always be moving forward. Our organisations need to embrace these changes and move with them as quickly as they can. It is not always easy, but it is always the better way to go.”

Catching up to Industry 4.0 and speeding into Industry 5.0

Hern, delivering his keynote speech on the second day of the conference, said that while Industry 4.0 was currently in the ascendant and transforming the sector, there were challenges ahead that would require even greater changes. “Demand for automation along Industry 4.0 principles within the manufacturing sector is high. But it’s not without challenges. We have to understand what those challenges are: market demands are changing, the employment environment is changing, and the face of manufacturing is changing,” Hern said. We have to embrace these changes to understand how we can move forward. Variation and customisation are now becoming a bigger and bigger element for a manufacturer – how do we make those variations and customisations for our customers?”

Hern said that, more and more, the industry was seeing shorter product life cycles, greater complexity and miniaturisation, requiring greater precision and consistency. From an employment environment perspective, higher wages and training costs, alongside a skills shortage within manufacturing would also bring challenges. And then there’s the issue of greater global competition.
“We’ve seen how the globe is becoming smaller and smaller – people can access their products from all over the world. In this market environment, how do we keep manufacturing in Australia? These are the challenges,” Hern told the audience.

Hern also pointed to the growth of smaller and medium enterprises in the manufacturing sector. While larger enterprises tend to have large fixed installations, smaller enterprises need to be more flexible, so they seek out more relocatable equipment. “There is limited human interaction from large enterprises whereas there are frequent interactions for a small enterprise.

Another difference is the separation of space: in a large enterprise, all of the machinery is guarded; in smaller enterprises, the space around the equipment tends to be shared with the workers. And, in smaller companies, there are more frequent changes in the kinds of work required as a function of more customisation and shorter runs.”

Universal Robots is providing cobots for manufacturing businesses of all sizes.

Hern provided a schematic overview of the most recent “industrial revolutions” of the modern era. The Third Industrial Revolution, he said, saw more machinery brought into the plant itself, such as robotics and automation. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Industry 4.0 – all that automation is being connected and collected and put into the online cloud, enabling greater access to that information to make value decisions about the organisation and about the production operation.

“Industry 4.0 is the merging of the Internet of Things (IoT), digital supply chains, and digital manufacturing. It’s the internet technology that is allowing the interconnectivity to have rapid data, rapid decision making and value creation,” Hern said. “More accurate data enable companies to make the right decisions and improve time to market to be able to get products out the door quicker and reduce costs.”

Hern said that the first four industrial revolutions were about putting more machines into the operation and, effectively, taking people out of the production process. Industry 5.0, on the other hand, is moving towards the area of putting humans back into those operations and adding human value to the whole process. The enabler of this refocus on the human side of production, Hern said, was robots – more specifically, collaborative robots, or cobots.

“When we talk about robots, a lot of people ask, ‘Are we losing our jobs to robots?’ Absolutely not. In fact, what we find is that the human robot collaboration is actually 85 per cent more productive than humans or robots alone. That was a finding from M.I.T. back in 2016. So, no, we’re not losing jobs. What we’re finding is that our collaborative robots actually help us to become more productive. It enables companies to reposition their staff, their workers, from the dull, dangerous and mundane roles into more productive roles and higher value roles. And that’s what we want to help them to do.”

Regarding automation, Hern said the reality is that less than 10 percent of jobs are fully automatable. But at the same time, he said, integrating collaborative robots can actually lead to a 50 percent increase in productivity without job losses. “The next potential industrial revolution is about returning the human touch to business: people and production; not just production. People will move out of dull, dangerous and dirty jobs, and move into higher value-adding positions. And that’s what collaborative robots can bring to your operation.”

Bringing together man and machine

So, how does this future really look like in a manufacturing facility? And how does it compare to Industry 4.0? The former, according to Hern, is about man or machine, while Industry 5.0 is about bringing the two together – man and machine.

“Industry 4.0 is replacing platforms or people; Industry 5.0 is improving people. Industry 4.0 is about standardisation and doing lots of the same thing; Industry 5.0 allows for a lot more mass customisation, which is what customers are demanding. Industry 4.0 is about value creation from a monetary perspective; Industry 5.0 is about saying ‘Sure, we’re all in business to create value for our shareholders, but there are also non-monetary benefits for our workers. We’ve got to look after our workers if we want to keep on manufacturing,’” Hern said.

Hern gave several examples of cobot use in firms. At a medical device manufacturer, production output doubled as a function of employing robots or collaborative robots to do jobs. Furthermore, the use of the cobots meant that caging for heavy and dangerous machinery wasn’t required, and much less space was used than would ordinarily be the case in implementing this level of automation. “It maintained the same footprint as they were already using so there wasn’t an additional real estate cost to implement the automation. Very interestingly, though, there was a reduction in defects. That was a big cost saving for the new organisation,” said Hern.

And, because they’re being moved from one operation to another as production defines the need, the cobots are never idle. “These are all small businesses that don’t necessarily have full- time operation on one particular line. They’ve got a lot of flexibility in their manufacture and so they need the robots to do different functions at different times. It offers a manufacturer a whole lot of flexibility and reduces their costs,” he explained.

Hern said that, in Universal Robots’ view, collaborative robots ought to be seen as multipurpose tool – to be used by the production staff to help them do their job better, increase the efficiency of production, and make the workplace safer for workers.

Achieving maximum productivity, said Hern, cobots facilitated a merging of human expertise with technological competency. They also don’t require a total overhaul of the premises. The same space, or even less space, can be used to do more; and, in helping human workers, cobots can reduce the time that human workers are idle, and free them up to do other, possibly higher-value, tasks.

“Looking forward at the future of integration between humans and machines, our workplaces will no longer be defined by traditional rules. New technologies will define the ways we work and change the roles that we play. Workplaces will play host to humans and robotics working alongside each other as co-workers rather than just tools,” Hern said. “The IoT will mean that workers are more connected to the workplace than ever before. And with constant real-time communication available, the manufacturing plants of the future will be agile, flexible, and reactive to change.”

Automation and other technologies will help reduce waste, minimise the risks to workers, who will be freed from the dirtiest and most dangerous work, he went on to say, while implementing faster and more streamlined manufacturing processes or procedures by utilising technologies like cobots will help businesses meet and exceed changing customer expectations by improving standards, reducing reputational risks, and delivering high quality products faster. “This is where we’re heading, and we’ll be faced with choices: responding or failing to adapt to change. The rewards for the manufacturers that adapt are clear; those that are slow to respond to changing expectations, by failing to embrace the future of manufacturing, risk losing business to others,” Hern concluded.

“In a nutshell, Industry 5.0 is the revolution in which man and machine reconcile and find ways to work together to improve the means and efficiency of production. The greatest advance predicted of Industry 5.0 involves the interaction of human intelligence and cognitive computing. Robots are Industry 5.0 ready. Are you?”