SCIENCE fiction has long promised us intelligent robot companions and machines that can create complex objects at will, seemingly out of thin air. But these dreams remain tantalisingly out of reach, despite decades of intense research. Save for the odd toy or autonomous vacuum cleaner, not many of us interact with robots regularly. Unless you happen to work in a modern factory, that is. Behind closed doors, real technological progress is quietly transforming the world as we know it.
After decades of development, 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) has metaphorically exploded, and now sits firmly in the media spotlight. In simple terms, 3D printers take raw materials (often a granular plastic), and turn out fully-formed customisable products in one step. Popular writers are particularly fond of the home 3D printer: “Forgotten to buy your wife an anniversary present? Why go to the shops? You can print one out at home.”
Although we still have some way to go before domestic printers can make anything more than small plastic curiosities, in the manufacturing world the trend is taking off. Global manufacturers have thrown their collective weight behind advanced 3D printers. GE Aviation plans to use them to make parts for commercial aircraft engines in the near future. Daimler is funding the development of a large 3D-printing system for use in car production. Several other car makers have announced collaborations with additive manufacturing providers. All these firms hope to simplify their manufacturing processes and supply chains, and reduce the waste of expensive raw materials.
Robots are also now skilled enough to do work previously reserved for nimble human hands. In Japan, money-handling machine maker Glory already employs 13 humanoid robots at its factory in Kazo. These robots can not only recognise individual parts, but also handle and assemble them carefully. Glory thinks that robots will keep Japanese manufacturing competitive: while the robots are slower than human workers, they can work for 24 hours a day.
Twin-armed industrial robots – from the likes of Yaskawa, Fanuc and ABB – are unnervingly dextrous, and their benefits have not escaped the attention of some of the world’s largest manufacturers, such as Taiwan’s Foxconn (which makes Apple’s iPads and iPhones). In late 2012, Foxconn chief executive Terry Gou started replacing Chinese workers with robots. He has ambitious plans to deploy 1m of them, eliminating swathes of dull jobs (and tackling rising wages, labour disputes, and exploitation scandals).
As well as becoming more skilled, robots are also becoming safer and cheaper. Until recently, industrial robots worked in isolation. For decades, legions of efficient automatons have built cars and appliances, all safely locked in cages or within no-go zones. (A typical industrial robot will not stop welding just because you happen to be in the way).
In the past few years, however, robots have started to break out of their cages. In 2012, ReThink Robotics – a company started by celebrated roboticist Rodney Brooks – introduced Baxter, a “robotic co-worker”, designed to operate safely alongside production-line workers. ReThink is targeting small US businesses, companies that are too small to afford $250,000 robots. The goal is to make small-scale US manufacturing economically competitive. Baxter is extremely cheap (at around $22,000), fairly versatile, and easy to programme (you press record and move his arms about). While Brooks’s creation undoubtedly has limitations – Baxter is not exactly a fast worker – this friendly-looking helper is undoubtedly a taste of things to come.
What does this mean for Britain? Most simply, embracing these technologies will help UK manufacturing’s international competitiveness. Unlike labour rates, the cost of a robot or 3D printer should not vary much geographically. The past 20 years has seen manufacturing offshored to where labour is cheapest. And while some manufacturers have returned for economic and quality reasons, we don’t make as much as we could. By embracing new techniques, it should be possible to make stuff as cheaply in Maidstone as it is in Mumbai. And it won’t all be mass-produced widgets. Autonomous manufacturing could attain the capitalist nirvana of being both low cost and customisable.
But more interestingly, we could also see niche manufacturers emerge in creative urban environments like Shoreditch or central Newcastle. Crucially, advanced manufacturing technologies could create UK jobs rather than eliminate them. And not one of these jobs will be in a sweatshop. Above every autonomous manufacturing facility, we will need skilled white-collar workers – not just to design attractive, world-beating products, but to run the businesses new technologies will create.
Carl Telford is program manager for Strategic Business Insights’ Scan service.