82; INC. ; MAY 2018 ; ; ;; ; ;
Amy Webb (@amywebb) is an
author and futurist and the founder of the
Future Today Institute, a leading forecasting
and strategy firm.
The Robots Are Coming— and They’re Networked
The factory of the future will feature
many machines working as one.
AMY WEBB ; LEADING EDGE
sk any number of manufacturers how soon robots
are likely to replace human
workers, and you’ll get
the same response: The
cost of building and maintaining a fully automated
facility is exorbitant,
wildly risky, and o; in the
far distant future.
But collaborative robotics are proving that the future has
arrived, and it isn’t the stu; of dystopian sci-fi. It won’t be
long before fully autonomous factories become the norm,
creating new opportunities in the marketplace.
A host of emerging technologies—including artificial
intelligence, smart sensors, sense-and-avoid systems, and
articulated robotic joints—are converging in interesting new
ways. The result is a connected network of machines that work
together, just as we humans do. Rather than a single robot
performing all steps of a process, many di;erent machines each
excel at just one or a few tasks and then communicate with
other robots to start the next segment of work. That’s not
unlike the workflow in a labor-intensive factory, but for one
key di;erence: Robots will work around the clock, without a
break, in terrible conditions, and without pay.
Soft Wear Automation, a startup developed in collaboration
with Georgia Tech University, has introduced Sewbots, which
can produce a pair of jeans or a T-shirt without any human
intervention. This might not sound that impressive—after all,
cars can now drive themselves on the highway. But soft textiles
present multiple challenges. Fabrics are wildly variable, with
thousands of tiny distortions in color, stretch, and weave.
Experienced human workers spot anomalies and make
adjustments as they work. Doing that with machine-learning
algorithms and robots didn’t happen until recently. A Sewbot
workline, in tandem with Softwear’s other systems, can produce
1,142 T-shirts—the work of 17 humans—in eight hours.
Sewbo, currently based in Seattle, takes a di;erent approach.
Rather than inventing highly specialized robot teams to manufacture garments, Sewbo came up with a process that adds
a sti;ener to fabrics before sewing, which transforms the
material to make it feel more like a thin sheet of hard plastic.
Sewbo’s robots sew and finish the sti;ened garment, which is
then washed and returned to its natural texture.
The plummeting cost of sensors and components, and
rapidly accelerating advancement in other areas, will mean
lots of other opportunities. Tesla’s Gigafactory will soon
employ hundreds of robotic arms and “automated guided
vehicles,” essentially mobile robots that transport items from
one area to another. Taiwan manufacturing behemoth Fox-conn has announced that it will use “Foxbots”—collaborative
robots—to perform 30 percent of its electronics manufacturing by 2020. Los Altos, California–based Instrumental builds
an optical inspection system that identifies tiny variances
during production and can help pull out defective products.
Its data-crunching abilities can be used to make the entire
manufacturing process more e;cient.
Some warn that fully automated factories will obviate
many manufacturing jobs, and increase unemployment. But
technology has always taken jobs that once only humans
could perform—and technology has also forced the creation
of new jobs to meet society’s changing demands.
The transition to robot workers is good for business. It’s
good business, too. Demand for ever-cheaper products has
led companies to o;shore manufacturing, which often extracts
real costs: In 2013, a rundown Bangladeshi factory that made
clothes for the likes of Benetton and Walmart collapsed, killing 1,130 people and injuring 2,500 others. But new robots
could move production back to the U.S. without driving up
prices. Bringing such factories back home could reduce costs
throughout the supply chain, with less money spent on overseas contractors, shipping, and foreign taxes. That means
greater profits—and still giving consumers a break on price.
bo o ’ d