The world of robotics is constantly changing, and the needs of each industry can be very different. That is why we partnered with consultant Simon Whitton, managing director of SIRO Consulting Ltd, a boutique consulting company focused on the Industrial Robot and Automation markets. He has more than 35 years of experience in the robotics automation space and has extensive knowledge in robotics, automation, and manufacturing.
Part three of this series will focus on the future of robotics.
What countries use the most robots and why?
The current leaders in this area are China, South Korea, and Japan. I think if you look at any country that is leading in terms of robot adoption at this point, they all face similar challenges, including falling birthrates and aging populations. With a falling number of young people to fill these positions, manufacturers are increasingly adopting more robotic automation to remain competitive.
What do you think is the next big thing in robotics?
I think we will see a growing number of interactive applications that close the gap between humans and robots even more and open collaborative applications where we have not seen them before. No one knows what the next disruptive technology will be, but I think we will see robots incorporating increasing amounts of data into their actions by means of something like AI or machine learning. But it’s difficult to say what that will look like and what it will mean for production capabilities. We’re seeing a lot of benefits from computer vision and 3D sensing. This enables robots and humans to work more closely than before. I see only more of this happening in the coming years, along with improvements with other types of sensors. While no one knows exactly what the future will hold, I do think the space between robots and humans will continue to get smaller and smaller.
Current trends do suggest that we will see a future where robots are no longer programmed with code, but instead are capable of using AI and advanced sensors such as cameras for evaluating their environment or perhaps microphones with voice recognition to receive audible instructions from an operator. In my view, these would be logical enhancements in how humans interact with robots, beyond the touch and hand-guidance capabilities we already have in some products.
Are robots/cobots safe from cybercrime? What can I do as a manufacturing company to protect my robots from cyber vulnerability?
Your level of risk depends on whether your robots are operating on a network. Many manufacturers keep their production networks isolated to their factory sites. In this arrangement, there is zero possibility of a cyber vulnerability.
But even with cloud-based or other remote networking, the robot is just as safe as any other connected device in the factory. It doesn’t represent more or less of a challenge. So, it would just form part of a company’s cybersecurity protocols. It’s not especially vulnerable. In fact, you could argue that problems for cybercrime are more likely if you’ve got a laptop on your network. I think that you will have more trouble with that.
There are many companies these days that are offering remote access, remote diagnostics, and cloud or edge-based solutions. If you are considering this type of integration for your plant, you will want to do your homework to ensure the arrangement satisfies all company protocols.
Will robotics replace the human worker?
Any time technology enhances efficiency, especially in the manufacturing area, I think it arouses a certain amount of anxiety and fear about the jobs related to it. But the reality paints a different picture. In most cases, when robotic sales increase, unemployment decreases. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturers were facing a labor shortage even though the level of robotic adoption had never been higher.
Most industrialized nations are facing a combination of aging populations and falling birthrates. To add to that, younger generations of workers are showing less interest in doing traditional manufacturing work that falls into the dull, dirty, and dangerous category and are looking for something more challenging.
Instead of eliminating jobs, as most people assume, robots offer solutions to the labor shortage and create more job opportunities by taking on unwanted work. This enables workers to move into more challenging roles. There are also jobs that humans are better at because of their decision-making capabilities. And while no one knows what the technology of the future holds, it will be a long time before it does not have limitations.
We’ve all seen movies like The Terminator, The Matrix, and I Robot. Is there a chance that robots take over the world?
If you ask my great-great-great-grandchildren, I think they may be able to give you a better answer. But it’s so far away, and so far from where we are now, that I am unable to answer that question.
Should I wait for AI and machine learning to be more mainstream before venturing into robotics?
Absolutely not. The primary function of robots is movement—controlled, repetitive, high-speed motion. And you can benefit from that today. There’s no reason to wait for the other processes to mature to benefit from movement.
It’s a lot like asking if you should wait on autonomous vehicles to be mainstream before you buy a car. It makes no sense. If you want a car now, you buy a car now.
Simon Whitton is the managing director of SIRO Consulting Ltd, a boutique consulting company focused on the Industrial Robot and Automation markets. He has more than 35 years of experience in the robotics automation space and has extensive knowledge in robotics, automation and manufacturing.
Before joining SIRO Consulting, he was the North American Senior VP Sales & Marketing for KUKA Robotics where he was part of the executive committee and worked with the regional management team and local sales and marketing managers from each country in North America to coordinate efforts and ensure strategic alignment.
Prior to KUKA, Mr. Whitton served in several positions over 31 years with Stäubli. During his time as UK robot manager he was chosen to establish the three segments of the company’s plastics automation market: automotive, consumer and technical plastics. Later, Mr. Whitton helped develop VALplast, a new product that that enabled direct interfacing between a robot and an injection molding machine.
In 2005, he was made robot manager of the Asia Pacific Region and tasked with setting up robot activities in key markets that had previously only been represented by distributors, including: China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Australia. By 2016, his team accounted for nearly one-fifth of the global division headcount. As division marketing manager, he was responsible for the global message development, as well as the marketing control and introduction of the organization’s next generation collaborative robots.
A respected industry thought leader in the robotics industry, Mr. Whitton was a regular specialist speaker at CLSA Securities Japan events, and has been interviewed for the International Robot Exhibition and Robotics articles for the RIA and other media outlets.
Mr. Whitton studied mechanical engineering at the City and Guilds Institute in London and earned a Diplome Marketing (DipM) from the CIM Business School. He is a member of both the Chartered Institute of Marketing (MCIM) and Institute of Sales and Marketing Management (MinstSMM).