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Better together: Collaborating with robots

By Dottie Shaw, Manufacturing Industry Architect, Microsoft on April 18, 2017

Filed under Discrete Manufacturing

Manufacturers have known for years that one way to increase efficiency is to use robots. Unlike employees, robots can work long shifts and still provide highly predictable results. But not all production lines are suitable for robots alone. Many processes involve both highly repetitive tasks and complex decision-making skills. These applications are performed most efficiently through a combination of skilled employees working alongside robots.

Collaboration between people and robots, called cobotics, is a critical aspect of the digital transformation taking place in manufacturing plants worldwide. Cobots—robots that can be adapted to work with people—are empowering employees on manufacturing floors in unexpected ways: increasing their job satisfaction, promoting higher technical skills, and enabling them to focus on whole processes rather than isolated tasks.

A new way to empower employees

One study by MIT researchers found that the most productive teams were composed of people and cobots working together. Not only did these collaborative teams work more efficiently than either humans or robots alone, but the collaborative process reduced employees’ idle time by 85 percent.

Consider an auto part component manufacturer that produces assemblies from raw material through die cast to assembly. A robot can easily drill, sand, and insert each piece into the formed component. Not only that, but it will perform this same operation repeatedly with predictable, high-quality results. However, setting up each die-cast operation is variable work. A person can perform this task more efficiently than a robot. In fact, programming the robot to set up a die cast would take a person as long as doing the actual work. A cobot operation might then involve robotic drilling and measurement followed by human assembly of cabling.

When people work alongside robots, they can imagine new efficiencies and create process improvements that exceed a robot’s programming. And knowing how to operate and maintain the robots that are programmed to assist, they can perform higher-level work while functioning in the same environment.

Advanced training, better retention

Cobots give employees the freedom to take on more challenging tasks, work that often requires more advanced technical skills and retraining. In addition, cobots can be used to lift heavy equipment or operate in areas where worker safety is a concern. No longer tied down to performing repetitive manual work on the manufacturing floor, employees can realize greater job satisfaction while optimizing your business and providing better customer experiences. As a result of these increased efficiencies and better employee retention, you can invest these savings back into your products.

It’s a brave new world, and Microsoft Services can help guide you. Our digital advisory services specialists are ready to work with you to develop customized solutions that will empower your employees and transform your business.

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