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Industry and mechanics: how robots will help us to see and build the future

Robotics, AI and quantum computing promise to power industry into a fresh way of working

Rhiannon Edwards


A new industrial revolution is coming – and it promises to shift industrial processes and outputs into completely new territory. 

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, interest in automation and digitisation shifted up a gear – particularly in vehicle manufacturing, energy and utilities and aerospace – as industry looked to improve efficiencies and avoid supply-chain disruption. The result is that the global industrial automation market, valued at $449.1bn in 2020, is expected to exceed $543.6bn by 2025.

The next industrial revolution will see the rise of extraordinarily intelligent and capable machines – ones that can design, build and create from scratch parts needed for all kinds of applications.

Predictive technology will help solve industry’s previously intractable problems, while automation will continue to speed up the boring parts, leaving industry to use human intelligence to the best effect. 

In the short term, Covid-19 has accelerated investment in robotics. The main role of robotic arms is to increase manufacturing throughput by performing mundane and repetitive tasks. Automation reduces cycle times, giving companies a competitive edge through greater efficiency.

Robots now, cobots soon

The success of robotic arms in the manufacturing sector is driving their adoption in other industries, including healthcare. Meanwhile in retail, as shopping habits have shifted to majority online, robotics are already helping to speed up picking and packing. Robotics promises to be a solid growth area for investment.

Despite the hype surrounding them, cobots – robots that work alongside humans to augment processes in which both are needed – remain niche compared with robotic arms, representing just 2% of industrial robot sales.

However, the cobots market is expected to record a 32.8% compound annual growth rate between 2019 and 2024. The main applications of cobots are in assembly and materials handling.

Automation and data

Further into the future, AI and quantum computing in manufacturing and blockchain in the supply chain will be growing areas of investment.

The application of AI across industrial processes – from the supply chain to product line design and workforce optimisation – will enable increasingly accurate forecasting, which will eliminate supply problems and waste.

AI and quantum computing in manufacturing and blockchain in the supply chain will be growing areas of investment

Another key strand of change is manifested in additive manufacturing – principally 3D printing, which promises to end chokeholds in supply chains by making parts readily available at the push of a button.

In the long term, deep learning and natural language processing (NLP) will enable machines to analyse the large volume of data generated by manufacturing.

They will use this to train themselves to optimise production and show insights on their performance. This is called AI-enabled continuous process improvement and it is expected to change manufacturing radically.

Achieving zero-waste production is the end goal of much applied artificial intelligence and automation, implementing ideas such as planning and scheduling with closed-loop automation systems. An additional and very important benefit of AI systems is an increase in safety.

Seeing the future

Machines in production will also gain a new sense: sight. Machine vision is the next frontier and will see industrial cameras inspect parts on the production line and assess them for quality.

Machine vision is a key tool in self-optimising manufacturing and will play a role in both reducing waste and increasing efficiency, enhancing existing processes and reducing performance gaps. All of this will lead to higher profit margins.

Particularly pertinent to the oil and gas sector is the emergent technology of imaging radar, a visualisation tool that use data to create images that allow better insight and predictive ability.

Because imaging radars are part of the way driverless cars sense the world around them, the development of 4D imaging also has the potential to accelerate the development and adoption of autonomous cars.

Industry will activate these technologies on new terms of engagement. By 2025, services (rather than ownership) will account for nearly two-thirds of the $543bn global automation market.

Customers and vendors will together benefit from the bundling of hardware and software, and a move towards contracts that are based on the total cost across a solution’s lifetime rather than just the capital or operating expenditure required.

The future of industry is in smarter and less wasteful manufacturing, improved outputs and throughputs and a faster rate of progress than ever seen before.

This article is based on the Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Centre's industry trends report on Industrials & Mechanics – Process Automation and Digitization.

Download the abstract of the report here.

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