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May 15, 2014
Robots are Very Cool Again
By: Walid Negm

Robots can perform tasks 24 hours a day, every day–without getting tired or bored. They can do certain tasks faster and with more accuracy, too, whether that is a remote-controlled milling machine, a robotic arm that picks and packs parts, or a vehicle that can drive itself. In the last example, such an autonomous robot is succinctly described by chief executive of iron ore operations for Rio Tinto, who said “Effectively, you're taking a driver off the train and you have an algorithm that basically is running the train."

But ask three experts what makes a robot—well, a robot—and you will get three different answers. Some experts like to characterize robots as having three core abilities: perception (identify and locate people, parts), manipulation (grasp a wide range of parts) and mobility (navigate dynamic environments). Some say there must be a physical embodiment, for instance, that a robot is not only software, but also mechatronics—wires, electronics and mechanical devices. What is agreed upon? A machine, of some sort, is doing work on behalf of or in cooperation with humans.

So far, the best performing robots are ones that do a single job—and do it well in a controlled environment. For example, industrial robots that operate in a factory are programmed with fine precision. (As trivia, the first industrial robot, Unimate, became part of a General Motor’s plant in 1961, weighing in at a whopping 4,000 pounds.) Service robots are designed to be in the field, and can be programmed, for example, to provide care to the elderly, be the first responders in an emergency or inspect a remote pipeline from the air.

Of course, robots are a mainstay of the manufacturing factory. Companies like ABB Robotics, Fanuc and KUKA Robotics are market leaders. They build automation workhorses. Although I will not debate the controversial topic of labor dislocation, what has proven to be true over the long-run is that robotics, and automation in general, has created new job categories.

What is changing in the market is the ability to make these machines at a dramatically lower price point. Companies like Universal Robotics and Rethink Robotics sell robots that are easily programmed and safer for people to be around. And these companies sell them for approximately $30,000 a unit, one-tenth the price of an average heavy duty industrial robot. Purchasing a Baxter (made by Rethink Robotics) with a three-year warranty translates roughly into an average cost of $4/hour for an eight-hour work day.

However, these cheaper robots are not meant to be used in every manufacturing setting. They may not have the speed and precision, but they can take on roles that require a gentler touch, are better suited for final assembly or need human intervention for quality control. With 3D- and 2D-vision perception, these robots can identify, locate and pick up a specific item from a bin.

Even more compelling is the ability to re-assign tasks with minimal assembly line disruption or re-programming cost. Baxter can be trained by example. A factory worker trainee can record Baxter’s arm movements by holding its wrist and charting a trajectory: left, right and then up and down, which the robot then replays to accomplish the desired task. Baxter also comes with a robot operating system, which is a standard way of talking and programming the machine.

These easily programmable machines open new possibilities for adding intelligence for efficiency and growth. What does it mean to have short-run and highly customized assembly lines? What happens when multiple robots in a plant are aware of each other or able to anticipate and correct for uncertainty? What are the safeguards to avoid unintended consequences? How do companies truly make robots co-workers to humans—teaming and collaborating on tasks?

Great minds from the best universities and industry leaders are looking at these problems. At Accenture Technology Labs, we are also researching new capabilities in the frame of the industrial Internet—where a universe of intelligent products, including robots, are changing the face of industry.

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