How humanoid robots can help narrow gaps between automation and labor

The robotics industry has seen major growth and maturity in the past decade. Technology advances such as vision systems and computing power, along with the rise of artificial intelligence, have helped the industry grow in many ways. Robots also are getting cheaper and more affordable. Robots are taking a greater role and improving automation in many ways, but are humanoid robots the next step?

Wise, chief product officer of Agility Robotics, outlined why humanoids or mobile manipulation robots (MMRs), are the next step in her presentation “The Next Frontier of Automation: Mobile Manipulation Robots (Humanoid Robots)” at Automate 2024 in Chicago.

Innovation in robotics, which started in 1961 with the Unimation arm and continues to today, “has created highly specialized automation that has driven us to automate these workspaces,” she said.

While that’s great, there’s still a catch: People are needed to connect these islands of automation. Everything grinds to a halt otherwise.

“We still need a lot of people,” said Wise. She cited the statistic that there are more than 2.1 million unfilled positions in manufacturing. It and other industries have spent more money on automation, but the people part of the equation remains a sore point.

“That’s part of the reason why we’ve seen a continuing need for new automation technology,” Wise said.

Melonee Wise, chief product officer of Agility Robotics, outlined the benefits of mobile manipulation robots. | Source: Chris Vavra, WTWH Media LLC

Four steps for humanoid and MMR deployment

Wise said mobile manipulators can address the gaps between “islands of automation” and tackle workflows that need more flexible automation. They can be deployed in brownfield sites, can serve multiple purposes and expand in utility over time, and are quickly scalable.

“They’re the perfect partner for other existing automation technology like automated storage and retrieval systems [ASRS] and other autonomous mobile robot [AMR] technology,” Wise said.

MMRs or humanoids are useful in several different workflows because they’re generalizable, she noted. Users can move one robot skill to many different applications by manipulating the system so it can do what the user needs it to. 

Such tasks include tote stacking, line feeding, AMR loading and unloading, and putwalls. They currently require humans to get objects from Point A to Point B, but an MMR can bridge that gap without disrupting production.

MMRs offer several advantages such as easy deployment in brownfield sites and are quickly scalable. | Credit: Chris Vavra, WTWH Media

Like any new implementation in a factory — or any facility undergoing this kind of change — a solid plan needs to be in place. Wise highlighted four steps any company should take before bringing MMRs into their facility:

Gather valuable data during a site visit.
Assess the specified operating environment.
Design a deployment and adjust along the way.
Deploy the MMR in a safe and efficient manner.

Wise expressed the importance of safety, saying, “One of the next things we’ll see with MMRs is the real practical application of safety.”

That’s important because unlike a traditional robot, a mobile robot’s standard operating environment (SOE) is the entire facility. For a mobile robot, this can raise concerns about uneven surfaces, keep-out zones, object avoidance, lighting, and clearance.

However, Wise said an MMR can avoid these issues because humanoids are bipedal and have the technology and sensors to operate safely the way a person would.

MMRs might not yet be able to talk like C-3PO from Star Wars, but they’re definitely capable of bridging some of these labor gaps while creating a more automated and autonomous world to meet consumer needs.

Editor’s note: This article was syndicated from The Robot Report sibling site Control Engineering.

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