Robotics and the age of autonomous help

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November 4, 2014


By Robert McCutcheon, Partner, US Industrial Products Sector Leader

On America’s factory floors, manufacturers are creating a new relationship between man and (smarter) machines. From robotic vacuum cleaners to self-driving cars, autonomy is being embedded into more and more products. And manufacturers are not immune. They’re not only creating these products, they’re also working with them. As such, US manufacturers are on the front lines of future production environments.

Traditionally ensconced in cages and repeating the same task over and over, new breeds of robots are now beginning to work hand-in-hand with humans. They’re being “taught” by humans. Think of them as the co-worker that does what it’s told no matter how tedious or onerous the task. The co-worker that doesn’t get tired or bored.

And as costs of advanced robotics continue to fall (from several hundreds of thousands of dollars now to tens of thousands per robot?) and applications widen, industries beyond automotive are adding them to their ranks.

For small and medium-sized companies, a question is arising sooner than most probably expected: “Is now the time to hire some automated help?”

To get a grasp on how US manufacturers are using robots in their production lines and future plans, PwC surveyed 120 US manufacturers this year. Our findings, published recently in our white paper The new hire: How a new generation of robots is transforming manufacturing, show that while most have already adopted robotics technology, there are still real barriers for those manufacturing companies that have yet to do so. Limitations include cost, the lack of perceived need, and skills and experience needed to properly exploit them.

robotics callout

The potential of robotics technologies has not been unnoticed by the likes of non-manufacturing companies, which have been leveraging their experience in software, information, and communications technology in hardware applications. Silicon Valley’s interest has also been piqued. Venture capital investments in robotics technology start-ups are up. According to the PwC/NVCA MoneyTree Report with data from Thomson Reuters (which tracks VC investment in the US), capital investments by US venture capital firms rose to about $172 million (in 10 investment rounds) in 2013, nearly tripling 2011 levels.

A few questions companies might ask themselves as a sort of “robot-ready self-assessment”:

  • Have you audited your manufacturing processes and identified repetitive, onerous, or dangerous tasks done by humans that could be carried out by robots?
  • Have you explored what sorts of gains in productivity, efficiency, and waste reduction could be achieved by deploying robots in your operations?
  • Are there manufacturing processes that require high precision and dexterity for which you find it difficult to secure human talent to perform?
  • Have you assessed what possible return on investment and cost-benefit analysis robotics would bring (comparing initial and ongoing cost of robotics system, and expected useful life span of that system) versus cost of relying on human labor?
  • Does your company have the talent to exploit robotics technology to the fullest (e.g., train, repair, clean, de-bug and program for quick set-up)?
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