Just as the eighteenth century Industrial Revolution changed the face of manufacturing forever, the arrival of the fourth Industrial Revolution is set to have a similar effect on modern production methods. This fourth Industrial Revolution focuses on digitalization and the advent of cyber-physical systems providing new capabilities for people and machines.
We are already beginning to see the impact of robotics in the production sector, not just revitalizing manufacturing but in bringing back work that had previously been outsourced to Asia. Twenty years after outsourcing shoe manufacturing to Asia, Adidas has begun manufacturing shoes in Germany using robotic systems. It is planning to build more such factories elsewhere including in the UK. The aim is to bring shoe manufacturing closer to its sales outlets, thus reducing distribution times and enabling changes to be introduced much more quickly.
In the UK-RAS White paper on robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) Professor Guang-Zhong Yang Chair of the UK-RAS networks states, “innovatin in RAS will underpin technological change bringing opportunities for UK manufacturing to be more productive across all sectors.”
Robots are appearing in all UK manufacturing sectors from aerospace to food and drink, logistics, biotechnology, agriculture, recycling. As the UK-RAS white paper points out “future success will be defined by the ability for UK firms to rapidly adapt their physical and intellectual infrastructrures to make manufacturing faster, more sustainable and responsive to both global markets and local customer needs.”
UK manufacturing is changing dramatically. Ever more industries are introducing robots, and investigating ways of using robots. As robotic technology develops, it is moving into new spheres of activity. The arrival of robotic weeders in agriculture would have been unheard of five years ago – now they are reality. There are pilot projects underway of robots that can undertake the harvesting of fragile produce such as strawberries using robotic hands possessing a delicate touch and able to identify whether a strawberry is ripe or not.
Robots are moving away from the traditional repetitive and sometimes dangerous tasks like welding to become much more sophisticated. Typical of these new style robots are the ReThink Robotics Bxter Robot and Amazon Robotics Kiva warehouse system taking on tasks like picking and packaging, testing, inspecting products and assembling complex electrical components.
EPSRC research undertaken by the University of Sheffield, University College London and the University of Warwick into human and robot interaction indicates that ‘factories of the future will be developed to be adaptive and smart manufacturing systems. They will use intelligent robots and machines that co-operate both among themselves and workers in a safe, autonomous and reliable manner to support capabilities that otherwise would not be possible.” These cobots (collaborative robots) are able to sit next to a human worker and can be moved around the factory with ease.
Lack of available skills is holding many companies back with to the adoption of robotic systems. There is a great need to bring more people into the industry, not just engineers specializing in robotics but technicians and managers who possess the skills to conceptualize, specify, purchase, install and manage robotic systems. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report indicates that future jobs will require increasingly complex problem solving, social and systems skills.
The potential employment opportunities are immense for those people who choose to develop careers in this sector. Training and re-training to gain extra qualifications dealing with robotics including graduate and doctoral courses and professional upskilling of existing engineers will undoubtedly prove beneficial to anyone looking for a challenging long term, career opportunity
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