Robots take over work This is what the factory of the future will look like
Robots are taking over the work in more and more factories. Production becomes faster, more reliable and cheaper – people don’t have to take a back seat.
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Image: Illustration: Dmitri Broido, Photo: Fotolia
A factory floor in Gutersloh at the end of October: Several dozen orange robot arms perform a choreography as if a director had thought it up for a science fiction film: They stretch, turn, bend, place metal parts from one work table to the next, spread glue and screw components together. Everything is done with superhuman precision and at lightning speed, a ballet of metal come to life.
The futuristic machine dance takes place at the headquarters of household appliance manufacturer Miele. In several factory halls, as large as soccer fields, robots and humans together assemble hundreds of individual parts within hours here until finished washing machines are loaded into vans at the end, 5000 units per day.
Miele has been building washing machines for 117 years. Initially still largely manual. Then, from the sixties on, increasingly on the assembly line and with equipment. For the past four years, however, everything has changed once again. Because since then, Miele has been building large parts of its washing machines with robots. And now everything is moving even faster, cheaper and more productively than before.
Many work steps are already being taken over by machines today – but networked production is also setting in motion a further wave of automation on the factory floor. But the bottom line is that this doesn’t necessarily mean job losses, according to the business community: at the end of 2016, Germany was already in third place worldwide behind South Korea and Japan in terms of "robot density" – and yet employment is at a record high, explains the VDMA mechanical engineering association. The president of the electronics industry association ZVEI, Michael Ziesemer, also says: "More jobs may also be created than eliminated."Digitalization will generate a large number of new business models and thus new jobs. "If you’re creative, if you pick up the phone and think things through, you’ll have plenty of opportunities."
Transportation and logistics
Connected and automated driving in particular is likely to make many jobs redundant in the future. "In the future, there will be no more train drivers, and perhaps no more cab drivers and truck drivers," believes Bavaria’s DGB head Matthias Jena, for example. Studies predict something similar: In ten years, one in three trucks sold in Europe could be automated, for example, according to the consulting firm McKinsey. In return, however, new services could be created around the robotic cars and trucks.
Paperwork, order processing and invoicing – according to expert estimates, office and commercial workers are doing work that can already be automated to a high degree today. This could also put many jobs at risk: More than 1.6 million people in Germany work in such jobs.
Salesperson and cashier
The retail sector was one of the first industries to be digitized – accordingly, many processes in online retailing are automated. In stationary stores, however, people are usually still sitting at the cash registers, although payment can also be handled automatically. Mail-order giant Amazon is also leading the way: In the U.S., it is testing a supermarket without a traditional checkout system and sales staff – billing is done via smartphone app and customer account.
They milk the cows, feed them, muck them out and help with the harvest – robots have long since found their way onto farms as well. Where previously a lot of work had to be done by just a few hands, machine-based colleagues are a welcome support. However, even the farm of the future with its diverse activities will probably not function exclusively by machine.
Hospital and nursing home
Robots in care – what is already part of everyday life in Japan still makes many people in Germany rather uncomfortable. But because human personnel is in short supply, robots could also become an important support here in Germany. Some of them are already being used today to distribute food or transport laundry and sterile goods – and as precise helpers at the operating table.
Robots already do their job in the home, too, and new applications are likely to come with the connected home. The World Robotics Federation (IFR) expects a total of about 31 million robots to be sold worldwide from 2016 to 2019 to help mow lawns, vacuum or clean windows. This does not yet include assistance robots for people with disabilities. But according to the Heidelberg Institute for Trend and Future Research, they will not completely replace flesh-and-blood household help. Some household chores can simply be done better and faster by humans, and the need for help in an aging society remains high.
Not long ago, it was almost exclusively the automotive industry that relied on robotics. On giant machines that weld metal parts or install window panes in car bodies – sealed off in cages, like dangerous animals. Now, however, robots are becoming hand-tame: they are learning to avoid humans when there is a risk of hurting them. And they have become cheaper, smaller and easier to program.
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This makes them interesting for new applications. "Demand for robots is now picking up in many additional industries," says Sami Atiya, head of the robotics and drives division at Swiss industrial group ABB. "From the electrical industry to food manufacturers," Atiya said. And that’s why the automation industry is booming like never before. By 2020, more than 1.7 million new industrial robots will be installed in factories around the world, bringing the total number of robots in use to over three million. The market growth per year: 14 percent.
The robot revolution also keeps German manufacturers like Miele competitive with low-wage countries. Because it saves on labor costs – and increases product variety. "Robots allow manufacturing processes to be automated much more flexibly than before," says ABB manager Atiya. Instead of always producing the same piece thousands and thousands of times, small series and one-offs are now also possible. The customer wants it that way: It is becoming increasingly popular to configure consumer goods according to taste, whether in color, form or function.
AI Center Kaiserslautern In training camp for robots
Fine work orchestrated with software
At the same time the machines produce in a quality that humans can not do. Like Miele. Robots have long since taken over almost all tasks in the production of washing machine housings. A worker places sidewalls and struts on a fixture. Quickly, a machine arm grabs the frame and feeds it to a device that stamps the parts together. Seven, eight turns, the parts are connected and it’s on to the next station. Further back, a robot applies sealant with a syringe; a sensor helps it to apply it with millimeter precision. Seven machine arms work hand in hand and finish in just 49.5 seconds.
Sebastian Lorcks, who is responsible for production planning at Miele, came up with the idea for the interplay. Using software from ABB, the 27-year-old can plan every tiny step of the robots’ work already on the computer until everything is perfectly timed. "When the real robots are built, all we have to do is transfer the control commands," says Lorcks.