When robots break out of the factory



During one of your long-haul travels, when you arrive at your hotel at an ungodly hour and have neither the energy nor the sense of direction to get yourself a bite to eat, your usual recourse would be room service. At this point, you’re probably cranky, a bit disheveled, and in no condition for human interaction. And yet you will have to interact —when you call the kitchen to place your order and when the room service attendant arrives with your meal.

But what if you could deal with an impassive, uncritical robot instead? One that wouldn’t linger for a tip or judge you for your superhero underpants?

I don’t know if robot manufacturer Savioke had this scenario in mind, but its three-foot tall, 100-pound robot butler is certainly saving a lot of guests from the discomfort of being seen by another human being in their pajamas. Relay, as the robot is called, is part of the new generation of sophisticated robots that are breaking out of the confines of the factory assembly line to make their presence felt in a whole new range of industries.

Deloitte took a closer look at these next-gen robots—specifically collaborative robots, or cobots, that can work alongside people and augment the latter’s abilities; and commercial, or service, robots such as autonomous guided vehicles and drones—to see which sectors they’ve begun to penetrate and how they are changing the way we do business.

Unlike their ancestors—robots that were programmed to perform one task over and over again— next-gen robots are smarter, more flexible and more mobile. One humanoid robot developed by a multinational robotics company has been deployed to a number of banks in Japan. Besides introducing new product offerings to customers and doling out sound financial advice, the robot can also recognize human emotions and adjust its behavior based on the mood of the person it’s conversing with.

Technological advances have also made these robots easier to use. Embedded vision systems, sophisticated behavior software, and robotic positioning systems have made it possible for workers to train robots by example. Some robots, for instance, can be taught where to go simply by being moved around to designated locations.

The ability of these robots to perform diverse tasks in unstructured environments has opened them up to even more uses. Major companies are already using robots to prepare meals, support manufacturing workers, and assist retail shoppers. A company that makes industrial robots is looking to develop robot assistants that can help provide elderly care.

It is no surprise then that sales of next-gen robots are growing rapidly. Last year, of the 300,000 robots sold by manufacturers, only around 9,000 were cobots, while about 130,000 were service robots, worth about $12 billion and $5 billion, respectively. One venture capital firm projects a 61 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for cobots and a 34 percent CAGR for service robots, and it expects next-gen robots to ultimately eclipse traditional industrial robots.

What will this mean for businesses and technology leaders?

Product managers and marketers may want to consider using these smarter, more flexible robots to offer customized products while remaining competitive and efficient. Adidas has already taken this route with its Speedfactories—robot-run manufacturing plants that are supposed to enable the sportswear manufacturer to respond to changing fashion trends faster and also to design smaller batches of running shoes for particular markets. This year, the first Speedfactory churned out trainers specific to the streets of London.

Customer service leaders can look at ways to use service robots to enhance customer experience. A hotel in Los Angeles that started using Relay last year has gotten a flood of positive customer feedback on social media and considerable press coverage for its robot staff member. Moreover, the hotel can conservatively credit the robot for a 0.5 percent bump in its revenue per available room.

For HR leaders, robots may help mitigate staff shortages, especially for physically demanding roles. The European Union, for example, funded a project to produce low-cost robots that can work alongside humans on factory floors in an effort to help improve the automotive industry’s productivity and efficiency. Instead of replacing people, the robots are meant to make day-to-day work easier for people by, say, helping install parts in hard-to-reach places or moving heavy items.

For IT leaders, one of the more obvious areas of concern, as more and more organizations use robots, is cybersecurity. IT professionals will have to secure these machines and maybe even upgrade back-end systems to successfully integrate robots. Risk management professionals will also have to step up and monitor a range of risks related to robots, such as privacy, workplace safety, and legal and regulatory risks.

Despite these risks, however, and even at the face of real concern that robots will take jobs away from people—Adidas’ Speedfactory needs only about 160 human workers to operate, compared to a thousand or more in a typical factory in Asia – there is no stopping the expansion of these intelligent machines from assembly lines to all types of workspaces. The best thing business leaders can do is prepare for it so they can make the most of their robot workers.

The author is managing partner and CEO of Navarro Amper & Co., the local member firm of Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd.—a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited—comprising Deloitte practices operating in Brunei, Cambodia, Guam, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.


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