Increasingly, everyday items like packaged food, medical supplies, and dental braces are passing through the mechanical and speedy hands of robots before making their way to consumers.
With their ability to work quickly, precisely, and around the clock, robots are gaining popularity in many industrial sectors worldwide, including manufacturing, construction, medicine, and the military.
Not only can robots help make businesses more productive and efficient, they can also help companies operate in a more sustainable way and provide better, safer working conditions for workers, says Lim Say Leong, assistant vice president of marketing at Swiss automation giant ABB.
In a recent interview at the recent MTA 2015 precision engineering conference where ABB has been an exhibitor since 2011, Lim says that industries must prepare themselves for robotics technology.
This “will lead to a less labour intensive and more productive future, with less resources and time used to produce more goods at a high and consistent quality,” he says.
Industrial robots, which come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations, can perform a whole array of tasks including carrying and moving items, packing, welding, and assembling them.
In contrast to industrial automation, where machines perform one set of operations repeatedly, robots have a much wider range of motion and can be programmed to perform complex, intricate tasks.
Increasingly, these devices are being designed to be safe and interactive for ‘human-robot collaboration’, where people and machines work side-by-side, a win-win situation that allows people to focus on tasks that requires ingenuity and dexterity, while robots take over jobs that are repetitive, require precision, or strength.
Their adoption worldwide is picking up pace rapidly, with the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimating that 200,000 industrial robots were installed worldwide last year, 15 percent more than in 2013.
In Asia Pacific, robot sales are set to increase by about 16 percent from 2015 to 2017. And in two years’ time, IFR predicts that 2 million robots could be installed in factories worldwide, with 400,000 deployed in China alone.
Productivity, sustainability, safety
Robots will be very beneficial to Singapore, which relies on manufacturing for about 5 per cent of its income, says Lim.
Firstly, it can deliver huge gains in productivity, which has always been a key priority for the city-state, says the engineer, who has held various roles at ABB since the 1980s.
An example of robotics technology being used to raise productivity in Singapore is robotic drug storage and dispensing machines at a number of public hospitals in Singapore.
The S$119,500 machine can pick out drugs based on their bar codes, update stocks automatically, and issue an alert when stocks run low.
Staff from hospitals that purchased these machines reported that this not only reduced the risk of human error in filling out prescriptions and reduced waiting time for patients, it also freed up pharmacists’ time for interacting with patients and helping them understand their medication.
A product packaged by a robot will have an overall smaller carbon footprint than if it was packed by a human.
Lim Say Leong, assistant vice president of marketing, ABB
In the electronics industry where product life cycles are rapidly shrinking and manufacturing needs to be fast and flexible to keep up, Lim says robots can help companies produce small volumes of products quickly, adding that “by offering higher quality products coupled with fresh varieties, companies can disrupt the market”.
Lim adds that robots can also help manufacturers achieve “huge reductions” in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Unlike humans, robots do not need light or air conditioning to operate in, and they can also operate in smaller spaces, allowing expensive industrial real estate to be used more efficiently.
Because of their enhanced precision abilities, there are also fewer errors in the manufacturing process, resulting in less wastage.
“A product packaged by a robot will have an overall smaller carbon footprint than if it was packed by a human,” he says.
Due to these benefits, robots help drive down the cost of production to the point where today, the average payback period for an investment in robot technology is between one and three years, shares Lim.
Will robots steal your job?
But despite their many benefits, one of the most widespread concerns about robots is that they will steal much-needed jobs from humans.
This may be true in some parts of the world, says Lim, but not so in Singapore, where industries often struggle with labour shortages. Instead of creating redundancy, robots help ease pressure on companies to hire workers, while at the same time ensuring consistent quality in output, he adds.
But what about existing factory workers? Companies can easily retrain these workers to operate the robots, says Lim. The industry is now at a point where the software solutions that control robots are simple and intuitive, so anyone can operate them, even if they do not have advanced engineering skills.
“Workers can be retrained to operate these machines, service them, or do other back-end work,” Lim suggests. Companies must help these ‘replaced’ workers upgrade their abilities, he adds.
Robots can also relieve workers of duties in uncomfortable or hazardous environments such as freezer storage units or welding operations, where workers are exposed to fumes that cause damage to skin, eyes, and nervous systems.
This is a trend that will take place across the region, Lim predicts. Youth from Southeast Asia’s growing middle class are increasingly averse to the “dirty, dangerous and dull” tasks that manufacturing sometimes requires, and having robots take care of such work will enable companies to create more engaging and meaningful jobs.
Industrial robots could also put an end to companies needing to chase manpower across the globe, says Lim.
“I feel sad for the companies trying to move around Asia to benefit from low-cost labour,” he shares, as this is a short-term solution that will become increasingly unviable as wages inevitably rise. Companies would do much better to focus on building competency, innovating their products and adopting robotic automation, he says.
The capabilities of robots today “will help companies’ bottom lines, achieve better quality output and improve the working environment for the industrial workforce,” he adds.
Edited by Jessica Cheam and Stanley Tang