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The ‘cobots’ are coming. Is your IT team ready?

Cindy Waxer | May 17, 2017
These collaborative robots work alongside human employees, sending productivity sky-high. But IT teams must be prepared to take on complex programming, deal with connectivity issues and get used to sharing work space with 6-foot-tall machines.

Credit: Rethink Robotics

At Creating Revolutions, an employee affectionately nicknamed "Manuel Noriega" assembles the tiny components of a customer service paging device. Unlike other employees of the startup, Manuel works for hours, day in and day out, without bathroom breaks or healthcare benefits.

Meet today's robot workforce. Manuel is a collaborative robot (or cobot) that's helping Creating Revolutions build electronic tabletop devices for the restaurant industry. The startup didn't always rely on a gunmetal grey robot arm to assemble its devices, which allow restaurant customers to text requests to busy wait staff. But faulty assembly was causing double-digit failure rates.

"The problem is you can't efficiently repeat a specific process the exact same over and over again as a human being," says Einar Rosenberg, CIO of Creating Revolutions.

With Manuel on the payroll, Creating Revolutions has reduced its product rejection rate to nearly zero. Changes to manufacturing processes can be made in real time for greater flexibility. And by cost-effectively increasing production rates, Creating Revolutions has managed to reduce its overhead by double digits. Employees initially bristled at the notion of sharing factory space with a cobot. But after assuring workers their jobs weren't in jeopardy, Rosenberg says everyone now views Manuel as "part of the team." In fact, the only thing separating Manuel from his human counterparts is a glass window pane.


Robot revolution

Long gone are the days of bulky industrial machines in steel-metal cages. Nowadays, robots work side-by-side with human employees, often outpacing them in productivity for a fraction of their salary. Cloud giant Amazon relies on 45,000 robots to pick and pack orders across its fulfilment centers. Calls to Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are fielded by Nadine, a human-like robot programmed to display emotion. And the San Francisco robotics company Momentum Machines has developed a robot that cooks 400 burgers per hour.

In fact, according to Robotic Industries Association (RIA), in 2016, the North American robotics market broke all-time records for orders and shipments. During that year, 34,606 robots valued at approximately $1.9 billion were ordered in North America — a 10% uptick over 2015.

But as robots increasingly take on physical and cognitive tasks in the workplace, they promise to forever change the role of IT. Provisioning secure access, safeguarding data, programming complex robotic systems — they are all challenges facing IT leaders as robots usher in the next industrial revolution.

"The learning curve for introducing robots is pretty big," warns Bob Doyle, director of communications at the Association for Advancing Automation. "There's certainly training and education required to make sure that everything's being done properly."


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