Tuesday, 14 Jul 2020

THE RISE OF ROBOTICS AND AUTOMATION IN BUSINESS

Robotics and its big brother automation are rapidly becoming a fast-growing technology trend in the business world, both in terms of ad-hoc solutions deployment as well as being a permanent feature of the future business model. 
 
In large-scale industrial automation -- seen in, for instance, car manufacturing assembly lines or last-mile warehouse operations -- an investment in robotic automation drives down manufacturing costs. 


Here, however, we are looking at the investment in and deployment of robotics and automation for enterprises outside such large-scale industrial operations, and for smaller businesses, more often than not because of consumer-focused solutions.  Robotics and automation are increasingly being considered by smaller-scale businesses outside of the large-scale manufacturing sector as a solution to certain business challenges and sustainability. Think healthcare, education, retail and even finance. Can smaller businesses utilise robots to help differentiate themselves from their competition? 

Who is Using Robots in Their Business Models? 

Historically, automation has presented itself in various forms; for example, the development of automated teller machines at the bank and the one-armed hulk of the industrial assembly plant that transformed manufacturing in the 1960s. In 2020, it is business as usual for multinational behemoths such as Amazon (robots move shelves to human pickers in the company’s fulfilment centres) and Google to deploy robotics and automation in various operational ways. Some industries use chatbots to respond to customers. 

Can Robotics and Automation Help with My Business Challenges? 


Firstly, a business constantly faces the challenge of maintaining its costs, or, as is on every business owner’s wishlist, to reduce costs while maximising output, yield and revenue. 
 
Secondly, in certain sectors, human employees or workers are susceptible to errors, and do commit errors, some of which can be costly. Additionally, as businesses evolve, so does the hierarchy of tasks and operational requirements. In many sectors, there are manual, repetitive tasks that are necessary. For example, product sorting or cash counting. One scenario is the possibility of replacing task-based low-paying jobs with robots or automation.  
 
Furthermore, in certain sectors, there are limitations of human professionals that hinder or delay innovation and progress. The simplest way to illustrate this is to think of micro-surgeries 
conducted with precision by robots in ways that surgeons are unable to accomplish due to the complexity of the human body and by the limitations of surgeons’ natural fallibility.  
 
Fourthly, many businesses strive to increase yield or output in less time, or deliver results with fewer inefficiencies.  
 
This is a simplified summary of business challenges to which robotics and automation present the possibility of solutions. 


Can I Automate My Business?

The answer is, that it depends. It depends on the industry, it depends on what your customers want, and it depends if your competitor is already using such technology to get ahead. 
 
A robot with the right configuration -- even a single one -- has the capability to produce a finished good at a much faster rate or achieve the desired outcome than one produced by hand-crafting or other manual means. 
 
While many experts differ on fine points about the definition of a robot, at its simplest, a robot is a programmable machine that interacts with its physical surrounding and environment, capable of undertaking a task or several either independently or semi-autonomously.


(The key word to consider is ‘programmable’. More often than not, the use of robotics is closely intertwined with the use of artificial intelligence, hence allowing actions to be carried out without human intervention.) And as robotics is inexorably intertwined with automation, the technologies underlying such innovation include artificial intelligence assistants. 
 
Secondly, robotics allows the automation of tasks that can be automated.  
 
While some business owners may be apprehensive at the amount of investment required to make that leap in using robotics for tasks that can be automated, we will see later the benefit of such a decision. (Also, with the globalisation of technology resources, the cost of investment in robots and robotics is levelling.) 
 
To illustrate how robotics and automation can be a business solution, imagine a warehouse technician undertaking a maintenance check on equipment. His assistant in this case is a robot who slides over as an extra pair of hands. Unlike a human assistant, this robot does not tire and does not require days off. 
 
This robot exists -- its prototype, the Armar-6, developed as part of the EU-funded SecondHands Project, is being tested by a group of engineers working for an online grocer to see if this robot can help maintain and repair equipment. Such collaborative bots form a larger workforce of robots designed to revamp the retail industry, whether it’s warehouse operations, deliveries or the in-store experience. 
 
Roboticists at Ocado Technology are developing robots to pick and pack tens of thousands of items stocked by grocers. It takes the form of an articulated arm that is equipped with a suction cup and a 3D vision system allowing it to pick up different objects without damaging them. These automated robots are often equipped with technologies such as smart platforms. 
 
Automation can also take the form of autonomous, GPS-guided drones that help deliver packages to customers up to a certain weight within 30 minutes. This is currently being looked into by Amazon, illustrating how the company finds an alternative solution to keeping customers happy and inevitably, helping with business sustainability in the long-run. 

What Are the Benefits of Robotics and Automation?

The ability to produce more in a smaller time frame -- accelerated output is one of the first standout benefits to be seen with robotics. Additionally, as illustrated in the case of a logistics company, the ability to increase yield, output or deliverables while maintaining or reducing costs over time spells greater efficiency and value.                    
 
In this respect, deploying robotics for business operations adds value to hiring, rather than decreasing the value of human employees. Utilising robotics for automated tasks allows an enterprise to hire skilled talent to add value to other business areas.  
 
The convergence of disparate technologies, combined with falling prices of sensor technology, with the added bonus of open source development, has led to robotics becoming an acceptable option and solution in addressing business challenges for enterprises and for non-industrial sectors such as healthcare and education. 
 
The acceleration of mobile computing has aided the demand and interest in robotics as innovators present ways in which an enterprise could lease a robot as a service, one that can be monitored using a mobile app. 
 
The benefit of harvesting enormous amounts of data from these technologies is also a benefit to business chiefs looking to inform their next business decision. 
 
An investment in robotics and automation can produce significantly more value when considered and strategised carefully within the context of what your business needs. As your business considers this step in its journey towards technological excellence, talk to Celcom as your trusted business partner to help you make the right decisions.