Make way for the cobots

Make way for the cobots

Collaborative robots that work with people a better way to navigate Industry 4.0 disruption and opportunity. By James McKew

A robot manufactures a car at an expo, promoting a full spectrum of technologies. Weerawong Wongpreedee
A robot manufactures a car at an expo, promoting a full spectrum of technologies. Weerawong Wongpreedee

Producing roughly 2 million vehicles annually, Thailand is Southeast Asia's largest automotive manufacturer, making its economy a prime target for disruptive technologies such as automation and robotics. However, according to the Thailand Development Research Institute, the country stands to lose as many as 3 million jobs over the next 20 years if it fails to adapt to these technologies.

Launched in 2017, the Thailand 4.0 initiative was the first major step towards embracing emerging technologies. The true challenge ahead comes in equipping Thailand's automotive workforce with the skills to navigate the technologies upending traditional business strategies. Otherwise, large-scale job displacement will be inevitable, with unskilled workers the biggest casualties.

The solution may be close at hand with collaborative robots, or cobots, one of the fastest growing segments in the robotics industry.

Debunking the 'robots replace humans' myth: Many companies mistakenly believe that all automation solutions involve costly, complex technologies that exacerbate job displacement. This is not true of cobots, designed to complement human operators -- not replace them.

Cobots offer businesses competitive advantages through higher productivity, consistent output quality and reduced operational costs. Companies are often able to scale their businesses as well as create jobs not just within the company but also up and down the supply chain.

Thinking beyond Industry 4.0: Where Industry 4.0 placed advanced technologies at the centre of production, Universal Robots (UR) has adopted an Industry 5.0 approach that is a step ahead. It envisions highly skilled operators and robots working in tandem to create individualised products, services and experiences, and prioritises the human touch in manufacturing.

As market demands and consumer expectations gravitate from mass production towards personalisation and customisation, human-robot collaborations are necessary to apply a distinctive human touch, while still meeting high standards of output quality and productivity.

Taking advantage of the speed, productivity and consistency of cobots with the creativity and craftsmanship of people, Industry 5.0 will achieve the best of both worlds by converging robot capabilities and human skills.

Cobots continue to lower automation barriers, making adoption a real possibility for businesses of all sizes, even for small and medium-sized enterprises characterised by small-batch runs and frequent line change-overs. Lightweight and compact, these robotic arms can be integrated into existing production lines without drastic overhauls of factory floor layouts, minimising integration costs.

Driving change with education: Recognising the challenges of transitioning Thailand's predominantly low-skill workforce to a high-tech manufacturing economy, the government has already increased efforts to modernise, allocating 29.5 billion baht in the fiscal 2019 budget to enhance labour force skills to accommodate technology changes.

The private sector isn't far behind. Companies like UR offer online modules and webinars on cobot programming skills via the UR Academy to users free of charge, regardless of their robotics experience. More than 63,000 users from 130-plus countries have enrolled in the nine-module UR Academy courses. Alternatively, in-class training guided by certified instructors is available through UR's authorised training centre network.

As Thailand begins realising its Industry 4.0 visions, it is crucial for its government to continually invest in its workforce. It is the only way to reap the economic potential of Industry 4.0 technologies.

James McKew is regional director for Asia Pacific with Universal Robots, a Denmark-based manufacturer of flexible industrial collaborative robot arms sold to companies all over the world.

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