Robotics is booming globally for many reasons. It was widely introduced to the United States back in the 1960s for manufacturing, but today’s versions play a critical role in areas from assembly to logistics, the control and flow of goods and materials through a manufacturing process or organization. As an increasing number of tasks – such as warehousing – are automated, human employees are free to perform other tasks.
Considering the vast array of goods manufactured in Asia, it comes as no surprise that China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is second only to India and is projected to grow by 5.8 percent this year. China is led by companies such as Alibaba Group Holding Limited, named after the character from the Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in One Thousand and One Nights.
Alibaba was founded in 1999 and is today one of the world’s largest multinational e-commerce and technology conglomerates. It is ranked by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s most admired companies and currently valued at $542 billion, making it one of the ten most valuable companies on the planet, outperforming technology juggernauts like Amazon, Google, and even Microsoft.
There are many reasons behind Alibaba’s continuing success, and one of them is automation. The company’s ‘smart’ warehouse in Huiyang, China, is staffed by sixty robots that transport items to human workers who then package the goods for shipping. To ensure accuracy and prevent accidents, instructions are sent via Wi-Fi, while the robots are equipped with an array of indicator lights and sensors to precisely guide them to the right locations.
These sophisticated robots are capable of lifting an impressive five hundred kilograms (over 1,100 pounds) each, and a mere five minutes’ charge powers them for about four to five hours; when they sense the battery is almost empty, the robots automatically return to a charging station, refuel, and tirelessly get back to work.
For Alibaba, the introduction of these robots and artificial intelligence has not just changed how the world’s biggest e-commerce company operates, but it has also boosted efficiency to the point that human labour has been reduced by seventy percent.
While speedy robots, equipped with artificial intelligence, cameras, and self-charging capabilities speedily is impressive, technology has evolved far beyond taking items off shelves and bringing them to a human for packaging and shipping. From food preparation to financial services, smart robots are everywhere, streamlining logistical challenges to make businesses of all kinds more efficient, less costly to operate, and even safer.
In China, pre-packaged dumplings are one of the most popular food products. Recognizing this, the owners of a factory in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province made it fully-automated from start to finish, with industrial robots taking charge of every step. Making dumplings by hand is a very labour-intensive process, requiring considerable dexterity; a robot, however, takes just minutes. Every robotic station has a specific purpose. Large rollers extrude dough of the perfect consistency and thickness before the stuffing stage. Then robotic arms carefully, yet swiftly, grab the dumplings and insert them into awaiting plastic containers that resemble oversized ice cube trays. From there, the dumplings head down a conveyor belt to wrapping and packaging, where robotic arms place them into boxes for freezing and export. Unlike human workers who need to stop to sleep, eat, and go to the restroom, this fully-automated dumpling factory runs non-stop, twenty-four hours a day.
With the goal of producing 100,000 industrial robots every year by 2020, China is well on its way to becoming one of the most automated places on earth, and it is not stopping at warehousing or food production. While ATMs and online banking are common, in May of this year, the China Construction Bank took banking to an entirely new and futuristic level when it opened the world’s first branch staffed entirely by robots. The rationale is twofold: some areas are less populated than others and require fewer employees, and the move saves money which would be paid to human workers.
Instead of actual tellers, customers are greeted by ‘telepresence’ robots. These mobile tablet-type devices display a smiling, cartoon-like human face known as Xiao Long, which means Little Dragon. The device verbally greets customers and asks what it can do for them. Little Dragon can answer basic questions and accepts identification cards and personal identification numbers (PINs).
And with the advent of artificial intelligence and biometrics, particularly facial recognition, the telepresence robots can actually recognize the human faces of bank clients. This allows the robot to speed the process through facial recognition. Deep in the bank, a second robot awaits to assist with everyday services such as opening a new account or exchanging currency. Customers can communicate with an actual human, if necessary, through a video link.
Around the world, robots are being used in factories for assembly, in facilities to make food, and in warehouses to check inventory and pack groceries. On construction sites and farms, these GPS-enabled machines are used to haul building materials and spray crops.
Investment in robotics and automation is reaching record levels. A shipping port in the Chinese city of Caofeidian is on the brink of becoming the first fully-autonomous harbour by the end of 2018. Like a scene out of a futuristic film, the harbour will become a place of human and self-driving tractor-trucks, with automatic cranes and a central control system.
American-Chinese start-up company TuSimple is a leader in autonomous truck technology and fleet solutions and believes that these vehicles are the way of the future. Fewer human drivers are entering the trucking industry. The majority of trucking accidents are the result of human error, such as inexperience or fatigue, and poor driving habits cost both money and wasted fuel.
According to TuSimple, self-driving trucks with a range of self-developed computer vision algorithms, 3D high-definition mapping, and more will be safer and have lower carbon emissions. And, given the number of ports in the world, the time for using automated systems and robotic truck technology is now.
Of course, the rising role of robotics and automation invariably has its share of critics. Some, like global consulting company McKinsey & Co., predict that approximately forty percent of Canadian jobs will vanish over the next ten years as the result of automation. Others, however, envision a future where factories with robots busily build other robots to serve humanity, making our lives easier, more efficient, and safer.