CSIRO suggests robotics solutions to boost manufacturing competitiveness

During National Manufacturing Week the CSIRO released a white paper detailing what might be done to lift the manufacturing industry out of its slump.

“The concern we started when we started consultation was that we were on a totally different planet to everybody,” said Peter Kambouris, one of authors on the paper, published by the organisation’s Future Manufacturing Flagship.  

“What we were proposing is pretty different to what people are thinking about, but we were really surprised, pretty heartened that everyone we spoke to saw what we were trying to do as a benefit.”

The CSIRO considered the challenges facing the industry, what Australia does well, and the types of companies that make up the sector and came up with three new ways to apply technology to the country’s factories to boost competitiveness and productivity.

The first of these were worker augmentation systems: using wearable machine vision to increase a fellow in a factory’s ability to do things like identify errors and access data.

The second, and maybe the one that got the most attention in media coverage due to the novel idea of humans working side by side with robots, involved combining human reasoning, flexibility and intelligence with a machine’s precision and speed.

The third was tele-supervised robotics, combining the benefits of the first two with the ability to keep the worker out of harm’s way when dangerous conditions are involved.

The solutions take into account the country’s economic conditions such as the high cost of labour, our manufacturing companies’ tendency to do well with specialised, high value-add products, and the big number of SMEs (considered to make up 86 per cent of all companies) doing business.

Also taken into account is a desire to boost workers’ skills, rather than replace the worker, allowing them to function more adaptively and respond to the need to be able to efficiently produce low-volume, high-variance products. Unlike the Baxter robot, released by Rethink Robotics last year, this technology doesn’t set out to replace the worker, just to make him or her do his or her job more effectively.  

“It wasn’t until we looked at what we do here in our SMEs that we saw generally low runs, very high product variances in what they manufacture and so, if you actually move the person out of that loop you wouldn’t be able to respond to those changes,” explained Kambouris.

“And that’s what got us thinking about how we add value to the worker with these assistive technologies.”

Consultations behind the white paper were carried in interviews and workshops with 26 organisations: 16 manufacturing firms from Victoria and Queensland, six industry peak bodies, and four state and federal government departments/agencies.

Being that the solutions are geared towards SMEs, they are designed to be affordable, and leverage some of the CSIRO’s existing technology, such as its work on 3D mapping and robotic mobile tele-presence, showcased in the Museum Robot project at the National Museum.

Some of the benefits of the adoption of the CSIRO’s suggestions might seem ambitious; the claim about the possible re-shoring of manufacturing because it will have become cheaper and easier to produce certain things here is something that most people will believe when they see. However, the safety benefits of the tele-supervised robot seem obvious.

Of the three solutions, the tele-supervised robot is probably easiest to realise, but still requires a partner that would be able to benefit from the technology to put their hand up to test it out.

The robotic co-worker, though it probably has the biggest “cool” factor, is the furthest off from being realised. Kambouris estimates it’s two to three years away, but it will hopefully be demonstrated working in June.

The CSIRO is also looking for an organisation to partner with for its augmented reality scenario, though we might hear more about it by the year’s end.

“I’m not saying we specifically have to find a company that’s interested, that always helps, we’ll be looking at a variety of funding methods to set up a demonstration and pilot models around this thing,” said Kambouris.

“And I see that happening within the next six or 12 months.”

To read the CSIRO’s white paper and to find out more about what the factories of the future could look like, click here.

 

Images:

Slider image: Festo ExoGripper from http://www.festo.com/cms/en_corp/12713_12717.htm

Lightweight robotics chart and Museum robot: CSIRO website and Facebook page