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Brainstorm: Manufacturing

In the Product Design & Development Brainstorm, industry leaders share their ideas on the continuous and future integration of robots in manufacturing, as well as the ways robotics may change the way we design and create in the future.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 print edition of PD&D.

In the Product Design & Development Brainstorm we talk with industry leaders to get their perspective on issues critical to the design engineering marketplace. In this issue, we ask:

How will the continuous and future integration of robots in manufacturing change the way we design and create?

In the 2004 movie, I, Robot, Will Smith lives in a future world where robots are personal assistants and so intertwined in the human world that they may have taken over.

If you look at many of the robotic machines currently used in manufacturing, they are essentially super-focused, job-specific robots that are an integral and necessary tool in manufacturing.

This may not be instantly recognizable, because even the popular one-armed robots often don’t look much like a humanoid, though the development and wider use of classic  android robots in manufacturing is on the horizon.

A recent report released by the Manufacturing Institute on the use of advanced robotics reveals that there are currently more than 180,000 robots being used in factories in the United States, and at least 1.5 million around the world.

It is clear today that robotics and artificial intelligence will soon be integrated into virtually every aspect of our daily lives – but the presence of robots and their impact is a bit different than what was once imagined in movies. Manufacturing is already witnessing this in several different ways.

Currently, the ability to engage in lights out manufacturing represents a significant advantage and cost savings that can be passed along to customers. The continued integration of robotic technology in manufacturing is already changing the way we design.

Once a product is designed and the robotic technology is programmed to produce it, changing the product requires reprogramming the robotic technology to produce a new design. On the fly design changes can become costly.

There is no question that robots will have an impact on personnel, but perhaps more optimistically, research and design companies will only be able to embrace robotics by building a workforce that can better leverage the technological advances.

We will also be able to design more complex features into parts without having a price change, as it won’t really matter how long it will take to run or machine it, because of the higher level of automation that is made possible via robotics.

Over a period of time, that level of design challenge is less of an equation in the pricing structure of manufacturing a part with a complexity of features.