The Rise of the Machines: Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Trends

By Protolabs
Robotic Arm

Firstly, let’s clarify that robots and artificial intelligence are different. The easiest way to separate the two is to imagine that the robot is the body and the AI is the brain. But this is where it gets confusing; robots can be software-based, meaning they mimic actions and follow set rules. AI is more like human intelligence that adapts and utilises algorithms to act autonomously.

Robotics are increasingly being introduced and utilised in industries to improve efficiency and accuracy and to support unsafe workplaces, capacity planning, and work shortages.

AI has made its way into more industries quicker than robots due to its ability to support the automation and streamlining of many processes. AI is now used in most industries, whether for analysing market data, risk management of financial data, fraud prevention or in a manufacturing setting where it may be used to predict future maintenance and assess the quality of components.

In the last few years, there has been an increase in the utilisation of both AI and robots, especially in supply chains, distribution centres and retail and manufacturing, due to delays, concerns and issues during the pandemic.  There are several robotic and AI trends that this article will highlight, including;

  • Adoption of RPA – Robotic Process Automation
  • Smart Factories
  • RaaS – Robotics as a Service
  • AMRs – Autonomous Mobile Robots
  • Cobots – Collaborative Robots
  • Increased Focus on Robotic Network Security
  • Increased Focus on Robot Interoperability

Robotic Process Automation (RPA), sometimes known as software robots (bots), allows digital robots to complete software actions that a human might usually do. For example, an eCommerce or automated banking system would use an RPA. The software robots’ complete actions, such as understanding what’s on screen, navigating systems, and extracting data, all tend to be high in volume and repetitive, meaning the automation leads to a more streamlined, efficient and accurate system.

Digital Twins

Smart Factories are fully connected digital environments where RPAs monitor physical processes on a factory floor and automate, analyse and support decision-making. Smart factory technology leads to better, faster, more cost-effective production processes, easy access to on-demand production and full traceability. These factories may use technologies such as cloud computing (to integrate their systems), augmented reality (digital information overlayed reality to support virtual testing, maintenance and repair etc.), digital twins (to simulate a process or performance virtually before it is realised in reality), big data analytics (to collect data and provide insights, quality assurance etc.)

Robotics as a Service (RaaS) is an increasingly common subscription-based service model. Cloud computing units are often used for analytics, monitoring systems and preventative maintenance; they are easily scalable and adapt based on user requirements and can be considered a unit of the IoT (Internet of Things). The benefits of RaaS and increasing interest are due to its flexibility, scalability, and lower entry cost compared to traditional programmes. Meaning this is a good option for smaller and medium-sized businesses.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are increasingly used in distribution centres, manufacturing, and retail. They use cameras and sensors to navigate their environments, avoid obstacles, and locate items. They are frequently used to pick and place, for example, collecting stock items, delivering items, monitoring stock levels and are used for cleaning (such as robotic hoovers you may have seen in homes).

Cobots or collaborative robots are taking over certain jobs on manufacturing shop floors and distribution centres. There has been an uptake in these machines as they can replace humans by taking over jobs that may be dangerous, repetitive, unpleasant or where there is a labour shortage. This robot uses a combination of deep learning and reinforcement learning algorithms. They differ from traditional robots because they share a work environment with humans, whereas robots work in isolation. Benefits include increased automation, efficiency and cost reduction.

AI integrated computer systems

There is an increased focus on network security following the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence across industries. As more and more areas use automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, vulnerabilities that need to be protected are exposed, so safety and security become critical points. As the robotics industry is heavily on the increase, this unsurprisingly has increased the requirement for the cyber security of these platforms and devices. Firewalls and anti-malware software for automation and software robots. Tamper-proof equipment, jamming devices and anti-hacking software for robotics.

As more forms of robots are introduced, there is an increased focus on interoperability. Unsurprisingly, not all robots use the same code, as they come from numerous developers in many industries. This can make things difficult when you want two different robots to work together in your “smart factory.” There is an increased interest in open code architecture to encourage a standard across the industry. Last autumn, there was a step forward in this area when a robot interoperability standard was introduced – having robots that use the same code and can use the same systems will be of interest and benefit to those companies searching for robots and artificial intelligence going forwards.

In conclusion, the robotics industry is a lucrative place to be. Due to the pandemic, automation and streamlined supply chains are facing unprecedented demand. Even pre-pandemic, the interest in integrating robots into certain industries was rising, whether because of employee shortages or roles that were too dangerous or repetitive for humans. It’s not hard to imagine certain parts of factories and distribution centres being almost entirely manned by robots in the future. However, there is still a way to go in the development of these robots and the security and interoperability required to use them.