Robots at Work in Operations: How Automation Helps and Why

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Operations is one of those departments in any company that must work in coordination with multiple departments at the same time. After all, the department concerns itself with managing and maintaining almost every aspect of nearly all in-house processes. The particular processes themselves may vary from industry to industry, but core elements such as planning, provisioning, recruiting, designating, setting timelines, ensuring timely delivery of the final product and doing all that while maximizing the inputs are just some of what operations is in charge of!

As should be easy to imagine, it is a challenging department to take care of, simply based on how much micromanagement is necessary when a single department oversees everything from procuring supplies and maintaining business relationships with suppliers, to managing the entire internal workforce. For large global enterprises with massive operational needs in each of their units, the task was proving to be nearly impossible at one point.

It should now make more sense as to why automation was the only possible way to make operations of such magnitude possible and profitable in today’s market. To provide more context this, let’s now take a closer look at how exactly automated processes have revolutionized operations within core level industries such as manufacturing.

Safety and Profit Go Hand-in-Hand

Worker safety is, or at least should be of the utmost importance to any company that plans to become or remain successful. There are obvious humanitarian responsibilities at stake here, but even from a business owner’s point of view, worker safety is almost always very closely related with the employer’s success. To provide more ground to that claim, we will highlight a few key points next.

  • A severely injured or deceased worker at any jobsite may shut it down for multiple days, if not much longer
  • In many industrial accidents, multiple workers are injured at once, which heavily reduces the company’s work capacity, while lengthening the delivery time
  • Industrial accidents will often involve heavy damage to equipment as well, which would only further delay or completely halt the entire connected chain of operations indefinitely
  • If the company is found to be at fault after inspection, they will also be at risk of facing very expensive lawsuits
  • Temporary or permanent loss of skilled, trained and experienced workers can temporarily halt processes and permanently increase expenses
  • In addition to losing time, work capacity and money, frequent accidents will also ruin a company’s reputation

Now that we have provided the necessary context regarding why establishments really do have a lot to lose by not prioritizing safety, it should be easier to explain why robots turned out to be the perfect solution to mitigating a lot of these safety issues in multiple scenarios. For example, industrial robots can:

  • Lift, load and carry a lot more weight than what a group of men can, without ever getting injured
  • Lift, load and carry more weight multiple times faster and more consistently
  • Work in hazardous conditions without being affected, while human workers will always be at risk in such scenarios, despite safety precautions
  • Perform timely repairs/maintenance which is a lot less costly than expensive lawsuits, compensations and medical bills
  • Be relied on more for ensuring the safety of everyone and everything around them when powered by intelligent software

As well as all this, the loss of a highly skilled and experienced worker is always worse for business than an easily replaceable machine. Workplace accidents also plummet employee morale, which hampers productive capacity and output, but robots needing repair will not have such effects on workers.

Intelligent Software Has Taken Automated Robotics to the Next Stage of Its Evolution

As this post on operations management and automation quite rightly points out, robotics isn’t without its faults either. Despite some factors still limiting the full potential of industrial automation, the robots of today are nothing like their predecessors. While there are a lot of engineering marvels involved in significantly improving the core design of industrial robots, it’s the intelligent and constantly learning software that’s responsible for making even the simplest of robotic arms, significantly more capable than before. To properly understand how AI-powered robots are impacting industrial operations, take a look at some of the main aspects as mentioned next:

Improved Perception and Recognition

Before the rise of truly intelligent software, robotic machines were limited in their line of perception and their ability to recognize. In other words, the trajectory, material and field of spatial perception had to be preprogrammed into their software. Anything outside of the preprogrammed list of materials and the specified trajectory was either ignored or misread.

The introduction of constantly learning algorithms powered by advanced sensors expanded those boundaries quite significantly. Not only could AI-driven machines now adjust their spatial recognition area automatically, but they could also track specific objects within the range of their sensors. Their ability to recognize new objects in the work line, only to adjust their actions accordingly, has improved to an astounding degree today. In some ways, the more experienced an industrial robot is, the better it performs in the work line, not unlike an experienced worker!

Flexible Mapping and Locomotion

Automated cars may still take some time before they can make their way to busy roads, but for industrial operations, intelligent locomotion and flexible mapping is pretty much a daily routine. Whereas the older generation of robots would only stop on sensing an object in front of them, modern robots will simply move around the obstacle, instantly mapping out a new and unblocked pathway to their destination.

This is extremely useful when robots are engaged in operations such as carrying, loading, cleaning and delivering within a facility. Moreover, this ability to recognize obstacles and work around them is what makes them extremely safe while working with humans in coordination. Intelligent machines make sure that accidental collisions between themselves, other equipment, and human beings are always avoided. Most software cores are designed to immediately stop the machine from working or moving altogether if one or more of their sensors are damaged/covered/dirty.

Optimized Precision

If there was one thing about robots in the industry that has remained consistent from a time much before machine learning became a factor, then that would be precision and accuracy. What modern, intelligent software has added to that precision, is scope. No longer is a robotic operation just limited to its preprogrammed facets for maintaining accuracy and precision. Automated processes can and regularly do learn how to adjust with changing requirements, without needing heavy inputs from their operators. Once the new dimensions, trajectories, distances, speeds and other associated factors have been calculated by the AI, the robotic arm will not just be able to work with the changes; it will gradually improve in speed and productivity as well.

Taking Out the Human Limitations Factor

Humans make mistakes and that’s an unavoidable fact of life which can even cost lives in a hazardous situation. Robots, on the other hand, do not make technical mistakes, although their ability to make decisions even with AI assistance is quite limited at this point. Humans are also limited in their physical abilities as workers, and although robotic equipment does not have access to infinite strength and stamina either, their thresholds are far too high for comparison to human limitations. Robots can work for longer periods of time with inhuman precision and speed, boosting business productivity to unprecedented heights.

What this means is that human workers and intelligent machines make the perfect working duos. The potentially dangerous, direct handling is taken over by the machines, while human workers use their sapient intelligence to fill in the gaps and manage the direction of robotic operations.

Removing the Need to Micromanage Everything

Intelligent automation has made it unnecessary for the operations department to handle every bit of micromanagement manually. Not only has it brought down mistakes and missed aspects involved in large scale industrial operations, but automated processes have made quality control less problematic than before. Make no mistake about the fact that human supervision is still very much required at certain points to ensure quality and safety, but those points are much fewer than they would be in the absence of intelligent automation. Fewer micromanagement points for the manual workforce should lead to minimum, if any lapse in speed, quality, productivity and safety in industrial operations. 

It should be stated that there are similarities between supply chain management and operations management, although these two are not the same branches in any sizable establishment. They may often have to work together with seamless synchronicity, but they do have separate task assignments. Operations is in charge of managing and coordinating all internal or in-house processes, while the supply chain organizes and coordinates all external processes related to deliveries (to and from the facility). However, robotics and automation does play a very crucial role in optimizing supply chains as well, with most of the points discussed here being relevant for external logistics departments as well.