Manufacturers Grapple with AI and Robotics

AI is changing the work of manufacturing office workers before it changes production. Yet AI is likely to begin making a difference on the factory floor in 2024.

Rob Spiegel

December 29, 2023

5 Min Read
Universal Robots
Universal Robots

At a Glance

  • AI on the factory floor
  • Robots in logistics
  • Integrating OT and IT

In findings that are perhaps surprising, the manufacturing industry has been slow to implement artificial intelligence. PwC finds that 60% of manufacturers are using AI, but it turns out much of that use is the front office. Statista and Tata Consultancy Services both find that the percentage of manufacturers that are planning to adopt AI for production is in the 20s. That’s just those “planning” to try AI.

As in the early days of factory automation, the advances in factory technology tend to be deployed mostly by the top 5 to 10 percent of manufacturers. While machine learning technology – certainly a version of AI – is widespread in the use of IoT to monitor plant equipment, that hasn’t translated to data analytics for most manufacturers.

So, what can we expect from AI in manufacturing going forward? We caught up with Anders Billesø Beck, VP of innovation and strategy at Universal Robots, to get his view on several issues facing manufacturers, including the role of AI in manufacturing and robotics, the integration of OT and IT, and the expansion of robots in logistics.

How will AI affect development in robotics and automation?

Beck: AI is transforming the world of software development, making it cheaper, faster, and more effective. Software is a key component of automation, and with AI, software developers will be able to create more customized and optimized solutions for various tasks and challenges. If software development has sometimes felt like digging with a shovel, the introduction of AI is like bringing two horses and a plough to the process. However, automation expertise will remain a scarce and valuable resource in the process of AI revolutionizing manufacturing.

It has been interesting and perhaps surprising to see AI changing the lives of office workers before it touches working practices in most factories. I look forward to seeing the benefits of machine learning reach more manufacturers in 2024. After all, the technology is already there – we have many partners developing applications using AI to allow our robots to perform more complex and diverse functions. For example, AI allows robots to have human-like perception, handle variation, move parts precisely, adapt to changing environments, and learn from their own experience. With time, these capabilities will lead to unprecedented flexibility, quality, and reliability in manufacturing.

Will developments in robotics software enable more sharing and reuse?

Beck: Robotics software is the glue that binds users to their mechanical counterparts - a digital connectivity that transcends physical interaction. Software developments are enabling a new dimension of collaboration - connecting the people who use robots.

2024 will see software developments leading to new levels of sharing and reusability. Imagine a world where, instead of reinventing the wheel, we leverage existing software assets—components, interfaces, algorithms—across multiple applications. It’s a principle that already underpins our UR+ partner ecosystem, streamlining innovation and reducing time-to-market. I can’t wait to see this evolve next year.

How will manufacturers deal with the integration of IT and OT going forward?

Beck: The future of manufacturing is intricately linked to IT/OT integration as data will underpin innovation and efficiency. Research shows that the manufacturing industry has been at the forefront of adopting cloud-based software services and we are already seeing some customers use these to enhance quality, cost efficiency, and predictability. That makes me confident that 2024 will see the growth of data-driven logistics and manufacturing systems.

Many still have an outdated view of the cloud as merely being a data collector and backup function, as we know it from our private lives. But the real potential and power doesn’t lie in storing data or even in linking machines. The real transformative leap comes when cloud-based software services connect humans and machines and thus help manufacturers simplify complex processes and make smarter decisions.

The benefits of this digital evolution are significant. Remote access to manufacturing data enables quick responses to issues and continuous automation improvement. With dynamic systems now essential, trusted cloud technologies offer the latest in security and state-of-the-art services. Industrial Internet of Things companies highlight this progression, promising improved efficiency and reduced downtime through Overall Equipment Effectiveness visualization and predictive maintenance.

In 2024, manufacturers stand to gain from these advancements, achieving higher quality, reduced downtime, better predictability, and cost optimization. This transition is a strategic necessity, supporting the shift towards high-volume, high-mix production, resilient supply chains, competitive data utilization, and sustainability goals.

What role will robots play in the logistics industry?

Beck: In 2023, Interact Analysis looked at projected growth rates in robot shipments across industries. The stand-out projected growth area? Logistics, where Interact Analysis put the projected CAGR for collaborative robot (cobot) shipments at 46% for 2023-2027. I’m not surprised as the market for non-industrial applications is growing fast.

Like manufacturing, many logistics companies face serious labor shortages while pressure is increasing as a result of globalization, e-commerce, and complex multichannel supply chains. More logistics, warehouse, and distribution centers will turn to automation next year to provide services faster and with greater accuracy.

To take an example - facing the challenge of surging e-commerce demands, one logistics company we worked with revolutionized its fulfilment center with collaborative robots, resulting in a 500% surge in efficiency and order accuracy. The automation system, adept at processing thousands of orders daily, particularly excelled during peak periods, like Black Friday, where a robot managed up to 4,400 orders in one day with just a small crew for replenishment.

Robots– and the smart use of data – are poised to revolutionize logistics businesses across the whole value chain from incoming packages to outbound logistics.

The pace of development in robotics remains impressive - I look forward with great anticipation to another exciting year of progress.

About the Author(s)

Rob Spiegel

Rob Spiegel serves as a senior editor for Design News. He started with Design News in 2002 as a freelancer and hired on full-time in 2011. He covers automation, manufacturing, 3D printing, robotics, AI, and more.

Prior to Design News, he worked as a senior editor for Electronic News and Ecommerce Business. He has contributed to a wide range of industrial technology publications, including Automation World, Supply Chain Management Review, and Logistics Management. He is the author of six books.

Before covering technology, Rob spent 10 years as publisher and owner of Chile Pepper Magazine, a national consumer food publication.

As well as writing for Design News, Rob also participates in IME shows, webinars, and ebooks.

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