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Man & Robot

Accelerating robotics to improve pandemic business resilience

23 Apr 2021

Companies are changing. According to our Future Ready Report, 75% expect to make changes to their business models, and creating a business that is more resilient to unexpected change is one of the top priorities. In some cases, that means looking at automation as a way to reliably continue certain on-site tasks – freeing up employees to work from anywhere.

Avoiding manufacturing shutdown

The great working from home migration that occurred during 2020 has proven the importance of digital technologies to any business. From contactless payments at your local florist to robots on the factory floor helping to support social distancing policies, it hasn’t just been office-based businesses that have seen the benefits.

As COVID-19 continues to drive further adoption of Industry 4.0 and improve resilience to future pandemics, how will technologies such as automation and robotics come into play?

Robotic acceleration

The number of industrial robots operating in factories around the world increased by around 85% in the five years before the pandemic – with the World Robotics 2020 Industrial Robots report showing a record of 2.7 million industrial robots operating in factories around the world.

Companies are embracing robotic technology to improve production timelines and explore the value of creating customised products cost-effectively – which means customers with both small and large budgets will have more options.

By moving from mass manufacture to on-demand and custom production, businesses can reduce wastage and support the just-in-time models — freeing up storage and cutting costs further.

These are the truly digital operations of tomorrow.

Low touch operations

Vodafone 5G is completely transforming production at Ford’s E:PrimE (Electrified Powertrain in Manufacturing Engineering) facility in Dunton, Essex. A high-speed, low-latency 5G Mobile Private Network (MPN) is adding flexibility to the operations, allowing Ford to reconfigure production lines more easily.

The 5G MPN will also transform the production process of electric batteries in the future. Potential applications include untethered robots and automated guided vehicles (AGV) to complete repetitive tasks and improve resilience, AI systems to monitor and run predictive maintenance and engineers will be able to assist remotely, using augmented reality to do their jobs from any location.

More sensitive than ever

Robots are also far more sensitive and dextrous than ever before – they can even be used to locate and pick ripe fruit and vegetables. Developed by engineers at the University of Cambridge, the Vegebot is the first robot that can identify and harvest iceberg lettuce — bringing hope to farmers that the picking of one of the most demanding crops for human pickers could finally be automated.

First, a camera scans the lettuce and, with the help of a machine-learning algorithm trained on more than a thousand lettuce images, decides if it is ready for harvest. Then a second camera guides the picking cage on top of the plant without crushing it. Sensors feel when it is in the right position, and compressed air drives a blade through the stalk at a high force to get a clean cut.

Cobot evolution

To date, the majority of robotic deployments have kept people and machines apart – with robots operating in cages – to reduce the risk of injury to the workforce. To keep latency to a minimum, most robotic machinery is tethered to local networks, limiting where they can be used.

But change is afoot, with a new generation of “cobots” – robots that collaborate with humans – gaining popularity.

Capturing real-time data about a workspace is helping to ensure safety and maximise productivity on the factory floor. Canvas Technology, for example, make an autonomous robotic cart fitted with stereo cameras that provide a 3D view from floor to ceiling, sensors that serve as “virtual bumpers” and LED lights to alert people of its presence.

This is where the superfast speeds with ultra-low latency offered by 5G Mobile Private Networks and Edge Computing will change the model – and remove the need for tethered connectivity. With the ability to control fast-moving robots within milliseconds, companies can safely have robots and people wording side by side.

Robots in factories can communicate wirelessly, allowing them to work more quickly, share workloads and be more agile.

With this level of control, cobots will be able to work alongside the workforce, potentially taking on the risk in dangerous situations as well as undertake mundane tasks, and opening up new, more desirable roles for humans within engineering, programming and management.

The pace of robotic innovation is incredibly exciting – but it’s the introduction of super-fast, low-latency networks, such as 5G, that are providing companies with the chance to unleash robotic power and achieve a step change in manufacturing models.

Want to learn more about the technologies of tomorrow and what the future looks like? Check out our guide.

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