3 ways robots can support human workers

AI and robotics are no longer catalysts of fear, but rather tools for collaboration. Here's how companies can benefit.

3 ways robots can support human workers

The enterprise is beginning to embrace the use of robotics in automating daily processes, especially in the manufacturing and industrial industries. The increase in automation in these sectors alone is so significant that it will boost the global robotics market to nearly $150 billion USD by 2025, according to a recent study by Transparency Market Research.

One continent in particular is spearheading business automation: North America. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise, as US tech giants like Alphabet and Amazon continue developing robotics and automated processes via artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced Monday the launch of RoboMaker development service, which is an effort solely created for businesses to build intelligent robotics applications.

SEE: How iRobot used data science, cloud, and DevOps to design its next-gen smart home robots (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Collaborative robots, specifically, are gaining ground, said Bryan Griffen, director of industry services for PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. These "co-bots" are designed to work among humans. They typically have one or multiple arms that can complete more intricate tasks, and they can be reprogrammed easily, learn quickly, and function fluidly. These models learn how to operate like a second pair of hands, oftentimes learning directly from humans as models, according to Greg Nichols from our sister site ZDNet.

The life-like functionality of these collaborative robots is the exact quality that typically instills fear within human workers. "The introduction of any new revolutionary technology brings a natural tendency for humans to fear that it will outperform or even replace human job functions," said Griffen. "However, from a historical standpoint, we've observed that this is not the case."

For example, "when the assembly line was first introduced, skilled laborers feared that they'd be banished from their jobs, but such was not the case," added Griffen. "In fact, the employment rate has remained steady alongside these highly feared changes."

Business reservations

The fear of outperformance may be the most well-known reservation regarding robots, but it's definitely not the only one. "Another perceived downside is a decline in worker loyalty," said Griffen. "Employees may fear that as robots become more advanced and intelligent, human jobs will ultimately be replaced."

Additionally, the cost of robots cause many business professionals to take pause, according to Griffen. This includes "the initial investment cost associated with purchasing and installing the technology up front, as well as costs associated with training employees to program and interact with the equipment," said Griffen. "As with any capital investment, there are initial costs and payback calculations that have to be performed."

Robotic benefits

However, the benefits provided by robots arguably outweigh the downsides. Robots support the work of humans in three major ways: Safety, productivity, and efficiency.

"From a manufacturing standpoint, robots and collaborative robots provide support to human workers for ergonomic and safety reasons by taking over highly repetitive tasks, such as picking up and placing products on a conveyor belt," said Griffen. "Such monotonous tasks can not only lead to musculoskeletal issues and potential injuries over time, but also increased turnover among those performing said tasks."

"Between tugging large, heavy loads (like thousands of pounds of linens daily in a hospital, or assembly parts and tools in a factory) to picking and sorting in a warehouse, to actual construction work, robots are starting to take their place beside human employees," said J.P Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. "Humans can rid themselves of unsafe, physically taxing jobs, leading to fewer injuries, and can still play a supervisory role working with the robots."

SEE: AWS RoboMaker: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Secondly, "collaborative robots are becoming an increasingly viable automation tool for manufacturers aiming to improve productivity," said Griffen.

By assigning more menial tasks to robots, humans are able to be more productive in the tasks that more directly align with end goals. "This can certainly result in human workers ultimately being reallocated to higher, more meaningful tasks within a company, or even working in unison with the collaborative robots to ensure the technology is operating as intended," added Griffen.

Lastly, robots boost efficiency in the workplace. "The implementation of robots provides a natural opportunity for companies to take a look at restructuring their organizations to improve efficiency and boost their bottom line," said Griffen. The efficiency results from robots streamlining manual tasks.

"Human workers should want to work with robots because it can mean that more menial tasks--which oftentimes result in high turnover and repetitive stress injuries over time--will be augmented by the latest robotic technologies that are designed to perform these tasks at even higher speeds and with greater accuracy and efficiency," Griffen added.

If a business leader wants to integrate robots in their organization, they should first analyze their company to see if they are qualified candidates. "Companies can also perform an internal audit of their processes to determine whether adding collaborative bots or robots would be beneficial," said Griffen.

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