People 'n' Issues

Robots are coming: How can you use them?

June 27th, 2017
Even though the uptake of robots in South Africa has been slow, they are already being used to or the likes of combatting rhino poaching, showing that we are recognising their advantages, writes HANS KUIPERS, Partner & MD at BCG South Africa.
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The global market for robotics—the use of computer-controlled robots to do manual tasks—is growing far faster than expected. In 2014, BCG projected that the market would reach $67 billion by 2025. In 2017, we increased that estimate to $87 billion. Much of the accelerated growth will come from the consumer market because of applications such as self-­driving cars and devices for the home.

Although uptake of robotics in South Africa has been slower than in developed markets – there is no generally accepted valuation of what the market is worth in the country, for instance – there is growing recognition of the opportunities the field provides and the massive potential for growth moving forward. Already there are examples of South African-produced robotics that are assisting in combatting rhino poaching, as well as in dangerous industrial applications such as in mines or on oil rigs. This indicates that South Africa is increasingly adopting robotics as its value is recognised.

Today’s robots have voice and language recognition, access to large amounts of data, algorithms to process information independently, learning capability, greater mobility and dexterity, advanced sensors, and the ability to interact with their environment. They have gained flexibility, speed, and finesse, clearing the way for a generation of precision robots that can make a difference in diverse industries such as retail, health care, food processing, mining, transportation, and agriculture —far more quickly and accurately than human hands can.

As people become more accepting of robots in their everyday lives, this will attract more investment capital and drive further advances in robotic capabilities.

The impact of these changes will be profound. Differences in labour costs between developed countries and emerging economies will cease to be a critical factor for companies deciding where to set up operations, and new factors will come to the fore.

As falling prices, faster CPUs, improved safety, and easier programming continue to place robots within reach of virtually every sector, and their ability to work side by side with humans opens up an array of new applications, the challenge for forward-looking companies is going to be to figure out how to use robotics to gain a competitive edge.

How to gain a robotics advantage

Gaining robotics advantage involves finding innovative, unexpected ways to leverage technology to differentiate a company from the competition and gain a sustainable edge. This may mean identifying the sweet spot where a hybrid mix of human worker and machine delivers the biggest payback, or it may involve creating an entirely new business model. On the basis of BCG’s experience in a variety of industries, we’ve developed a framework to help companies move forward:

 – Identify potential leverage points

Companies should look for areas of the business where robotics might be able to add value by cutting costs, enhancing productivity, improving performance, reducing risk, and addressing skill shortages or workforce variability. Cost savings are likely to be greatest in parts of the world where wages are high and robots could replace labour outright. Areas with highly repetitive or dangerous tasks, or jobs that require flexibility, speed, or precision are also natural fits for robotics. In mining, for example, automated drilling and haulage can reduce the need for workers in remote locations, increase safety, and improve asset utilisation – an area that is already being explored by companies such as Ryonic Robotics in South Africa.

Robots can also be used to take on repetitive, low-skill tasks. Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ can do heavy lifting and perform precision activities more quickly than human workers can. By liberating workers from tedious, tiresome, or repetitive tasks, robots can improve not only the workers’ productivity but also their job satisfaction. An example of this in South Africa was the introduction of a robot to help sort and collect antiretroviral medication quickly and accurately to dispense to HIV-positive patients at the Helen Joseph hospital HIV clinic in Johannesburg.

– Integrate robotics into strategic decision making

Adding robotics to a business is a strategic decision, not just a capital investment. It requires rethinking and fundamentally altering staffing levels, product mix, manufacturing footprint, and other aspects of the business model. Management must also consider how robotics will affect the company’s brand, operations, and sales. For instance, building robot-enhanced plants closer to local markets may make sense as a way to accelerate response times and to fine-tune products to local tastes – or splitting production into two shifts—a day shift for humans and a night shift for robots—may help to reduce overtime, super­vision, and energy costs.

– Think and act now

Where new technologies are concerned, timing is critical to market leadership. When robotics and automation cross certain price, performance, and adoption thresholds, a tipping point may be near. First movers capture a disproportionate share of the high margins that accrue to successful early adopters. That benefit decreases as adoption becomes more widespread. And because it can take a long time to integrate automation into operations, management needs to act now to develop a point of view, test and pilot robotic applications, and invest in infrastructure—including laying the foundation for a digital supply chain on the factory floor. All the while, the company must closely monitor the industry sector it competes in and move decisively when the time is right.

–  Analyse whether to buy or to build

Proven, off-the-shelf robotics applications can be put to work quickly, but they’re available to everyone, including the competition. An alternative is to invest in a robotics solution tailored to a company’s particular operations. A customised solution could result in fundamental disruption of an industry’s dynamics and provide a long-term source of differentiation.

The decision about which direction to take may come down to sourcing options. Most companies will need to look beyond traditional equipment suppliers for their robotics needs. But even robotics suppliers may not have solutions on hand that meet the specific needs of individual companies or segments, necessitating a customized solution.

–  Develop the workforce

To fully unlock the potential of robotics, countries must retrain or increase the skills of their workforce. Today’s workers generally lack training in robotics installation, programming, operations and maintenance. Few governments, universities, vocational schools, tech leaders and manufacturers around the world are adequately addressing the problem. Despite some progress in early education through STEM initiatives—courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and in universities with specific degrees related to robotics, an ability gap remains.

Without a pool of qualified applicants to choose from, companies will need to train their own people to install, program, operate and maintain robotics applications. Retaining these people once they have acquired high-demand, high-value skills will be another challenge. As robots take over lower-value and repetitive tasks, the work that remains will be more complex and less structured—and workers will need new skills to perform these tasks successfully.

–  Shape public policy

Companies that make or use robotics should work with communities, educators, local governments and policymakers on issues related to safety, liability, social impact and funding for education and training. By gaining a seat at the table, companies at the forefront of robotics can help define the rules, ensure progress and become advocates for the needs of industry and society alike.

Beyond helping to craft policy for robots that operate in public spaces, companies should participate in setting safety requirements at work, especially as cobots become more prevalent. As robots become safer, the certi­fication process ­should become quicker and less onerous, encouraging further development in the field of automation.

Collectively, the guidelines outlined above can help companies approach robotics in a strategic, disciplined, and pragmatic way—and improve their odds of achieving long-term, sustainable robotics advantage.

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