Other Voices: Building toward the factory of the future from the bottom up

Investments in robotics and automation can start in a single work cell.

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Editor’s Note: The following column by Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer, Rethink Robotics, is part of Modern’s Other Voices column. The series features ideas, opinions and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators and OEMs. Click here to learn about submitting a column for consideration.


Change is inevitable. In manufacturing and distribution, we’re at a pivotal point, where technology and process intersect to drive wholesale change in the way things get done. Broadly captured by the moniker “Industry 4.0”, this era will be built on information-driven operations that optimize efficiency, capacity and innovation.

It won’t happen overnight. It won’t be seismic. It starts incrementally – at the work cell level, then rolls up across the factory site and ultimately out across global operations. In many ways, it will be facilitated by software-driven robots that facilitate the bottoms-up approach that manufacturers and distributors need at this nascent stage in the revolution. Robotics investments must produce:

● no disruption to current operations
● no expensive and complex integration costs
● immediate and measurable ROI

In the smart factory, the automation of cognitive tasks like data collection, analysis and learning and the automation of physical tasks are linked. Fueled by technology advances, including advanced manufacturing, data analytics and next-generation sensor and actuator design, these innovations link machines both within the factory walls and globally. They connect manufacturing and business processes to create a constant flow of information between production and the back-office, facilitating real-time communications between the manufacturer, suppliers and customers. The result is operations able to adapt to fluctuations in supply and demand, sustain innovation and optimize efficiency.

At the heart of these smart factories are collaborative robots that are transforming manufacturing already. These changes are largely made possible by the same kind of advances that brought us smart device advances in software and artificial intelligence. Driven by software, it’s easier and much more cost-effective to expand the universe of work that can be done by robots. Early adopters like Florida-based Tuthill Plastics Group and German magnet manufacturer MS Schramberg have found the formula for success is straightforward:

Step 1: Find a task that people should not be doing.
Step 2: Get those folks to show the robot what needs to be done.
Step 3: Measure the increase in efficiency and productivity.
Step 4: Move on to the next task.

It really is that simple. Today, these robots work on specific tasks, in work cells, alongside people, increasing productivity and enabling greater flexibility. Change is inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be hard. For manufacturers and distributors looking to step boldly into the future, now is the time. And like so many revolutions, it starts small – on a single task, in a single work cell.

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