Robots have vastly increased manufacturing productivity, efficiency and product quality. Now, in the industrial transformation known as Manufacturing 4.0, they're also playing a significant role in helping environmentally conscious companies adopt sustainable manufacturing practices. Manufacturers are creating robots that can reduce waste and save energy, greening the factory floor.
The first modern robot dates back to 1954, when George Devol created what he called the Unimate, which got its first job seven years later at a General Motors plant in Trenton, N.J. Since then, robots have fueled manufacturing—and the imagination.
Recent refinements in robotics spurred by advances in artificial intelligence have started turning what used to be fancies of the imagination into reality. We’re seeing robots employed in various functions, from the mundane (vacuuming floors) to the eccentric (playing rock, paper scissors) to the downright dangerous (handling explosives).
According to PwC, 59 percent of manufacturers already use robotics. As the price of robotics decreases and more functionality becomes available, this number is expected to increase. IDC forecasts that worldwide spending on robotics and related services will reach $135.4 billion in 2019, up from $71 billion in 2015.
Robots are increasingly doing more jobs. But where they're especially useful is in preserving the planet’s resources by bringing sustainable practices to manufacturing. Those practices are closely associated to what makes robots efficient and—from a quality standpoint—reliable. The precision with which robots handle tasks minimizes error, wasting far less raw materials in manufacturing.
Consider how important waste reduction is to sustainable manufacturing. Every time a product is thrown out or has to be reprocessed because of a production error, more energy and materials have to be used to make it again. A ruined product impacts the environment when it's discarded.
As Apple has demonstrated, robots are also useful for the flip side of manufacturing—the recycling process. Apple’s Liam robot is tasked with picking out the reusable components from discarded iPhones. Liam separates SIM card trays, screws, cameras and batteries to make them easier to recycle, and precious metals, such as bits of silver in motherboards, are reused for other products. These tasks normally would be performed by shredders, which do a poor job of separating the components, or human hands, which are prone to injury when handling sharp materials and chemicals.
Robots also contribute to sustainable manufacturing practices by helping companies save energy. While a factory floor populated by human workers needs lights and heaters, robots can operate efficiently in the cold and dark. Companies can turn off lights and turn down the thermostat—and robots can still do their jobs.
“With no requirement for minimum lighting or heating levels, robots offer a great opportunity to cut energy bills," Industrial Technology magazine wrote in a recent article. "Current estimates point to a potential saving of 8 percent for every 1°C reduction in heating levels, while savings of up to 20 percent can be achieved by turning off unnecessary lighting." As such, the author points out, robots can help manufacturers meet sustainable goals set out by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization's (UNIDO) in its recent “Industrial Development Report.”
As we go forward, manufacturers have a real opportunity to create value from robotics not only in terms of flexibility, consistency and productivity, but also in sustainable practices. For some companies, the ability to reduce production waste and save energy could just be the incentive they need to invest in robotics. And as robots do their part in helping to protect the planet’s resources, perhaps their relationship with humans will become more productive and collaborative.
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