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A to Z of Tech Podcast R for Robotics

A - Z of Tech: Episode 20: R for Robotics

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Transcript

Shreya Gopal:

Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of the A to Z of tech podcast. Today's topic is R for robotics. I am your host Shreya, and I have with me Louise here.

Louise Taggart:

Hi Shreya.

Shreya:

Hello Louise, robotics is definitely one of those topics that's advancing at a great pace in today's world. It has the potential to bring such great benefits to the economy, not only by boosting productivity, but also in terms of developing new and better products and services for us all. Growing up, my favourite robot memory was, Wall-e. If you ask me today, Louise, it really feels like the robotic vacuum cleaner is definitely my best friend.

Louise:

I have to say the robotic vacuum cleaner is also a firm favourite in my house as well, although for me, my memories or connotations of robots are actually a bit more old school than yours. For me, I always think about the film Metropolis, and the chaotic scenes that come in that film. Actually, that probably links into some of that possible disruption that robotics can bring, as well as those benefits that you've touched on, which I am sure we will be covering in today's conversation. I also have to say I am quite looking forward to hearing about what actually makes a robot a robot. Again, I am sure our guests are going to be able to enlighten us on that topic. Today, we are actually joined by two guests for this episode, who will be exploring some of these topics, and more.

Shreya:

Yeah Louise, I am delighted to say we are joined by Ginny Foster, who is market development manager at Neff Power; and Liz Ajayi, who is PwC consulting technical lead for intelligent automation in the UK. Ginny if we could turn to you first, could you tell us a little bit more about how you ended up working in the field of robotics?

Ginny Foster:

Thank you so much for having me. I have a technical background in electrical engineering, and I chose to pursue a degree in engineering when I graduated from high school. I believe it was the challenge of engineering that had kept me on the path of growth and learning. As I have advanced in each of the steps along the way in my educational journey, and then in my career journey, I have taken great pleasure in learning new things, and leaning into new challenges. That's the challenge of robotics, that is extremely fun and exciting to lean into.

Louise:

Brilliant, thank you Ginny for that introduction. Could you explain to us a little bit more about the differences between robotics and automation, because they are probably two concepts that are used interchangeably, but it would be really great to know your thoughts on this.

Ginny:

In my opinion, robotics is a subcategory of automation, and automation is a means of carrying out a task in a way that a human doesn't have to manually do it. Robotics is just one way of automating. There are several other ways of automating too. All of these ways of automating have come before robotics. In my role at Neff Power, I am able to help our customers as we provide design and application engineering expertise in areas such as electrical control, motion control safety, structural aluminium framing, pneumatics and hydraulics. The addition of robotics to this already very full repertoire of solutions for automation, it's very much the next step to take right now, considering the trends in the world.

Shreya:

Thank you Ginny for that input. Quickly, touching on something that you said you help your clients decide on when a robotic solution is right for them. How do you decide that, could you share a bit more about that?

Ginny:

The two easiest things to look for in a process are repeatability and ergonomics. Repeatability, and that is a task performed the same way again and again. Ergonomics, in that it has a motion that will eventually overtime work the joints on a human body. Once we hone-in on the exact process, then we start to ask questions. The first question is, what kind of robot is the best fit, because there are many types of robots out there, and we are partnered with world class leaders in industrial and collaborative robotic arm, and they have many different types of robots, from articulated arms, to SCARA type arms, or delta, or spider type robots. These are robots designed for all types of movements. Then the next question we ask, is what type of material are you moving, and how are you moving it, because this will determine the number of axes your robot will need, four axes, six axes, seven axes. Each robot has a number of articulated joints, and the number of axes refers to the number of joints on the arm. Additionally, the type of material you are moving will determine the type of end of arm tooling. Grippers, vacuum cups or suction cups, tool changers, or any combination of these. There are literally hundreds of options. We keep asking a lot of questions until we drill down to exactly what it is that we can help you with. The third question you want to know is, what is your maximum reach, how far will the robot arm need to extend in order to perform the full task. Then we want to know, what's your payload, how heavy is the object you want to lift. Then we're interested in cycle time. How long does it take the robot arm to complete one full movement, starting from home position, performing the task, and then returning to home position. With this information, we create a simulation video of a robot performing the task to give you an idea of what it would look like. You could see how you would want people to interact with the robot. What this does is, it helps our team understand safety sensors, what type of safety sensors do you need incorporated, and the level of human collaboration that your robot needs in order to work best with your current setup.

Louise:

Thank you, Ginny, I have to say I didn't realise there were so many different factors at play when it came to robots. Equally, I am somebody who is very much an arachnophobe. I am not enjoying the sound of the spider robot, but maybe moving on to ask you a follow up question to that, would you be able to give us a few, real world examples of where this type of technology is actually being put into practice at the moment.

Ginny:

There is palletising. Palletising is where you take any number of items and you put them on a pallet. There's machine tending, which is where a robot would be capable of opening and closing, and changing a tool within a machine and then starting the machine up again. There is prep tending, dispensing, welding, pick and placing. Pick and placing is something that we see very frequently, because as products move down a conveyor on a production line, you need to be able to pick them up and put them into a box, so that they can go to the next stage. There's painting, there's sorting, bottling, adding the bottle caps to the tops of containers once they're filled with liquid, and just general material handling, that's where we are seeing robots really shine in the world today. You can see videos of different applications on the Neff Power YouTube channel. Some of these videos show collaborative robots, which work safely alongside humans and other videos show industrial robots, which can go into human collaborative modes with the help of safety sensors, and then return to full industrial mode and high speed operations when the humans are no longer standing nearby.

Shreya:

Thank you, Ginny. Over the last year, all of us have changed a little bit, how has the global pandemic created a shift in the robotics industry?

Ginny:

Well, after the global pandemic, there was an enlightenment. People began to realise the fact that as robots don't get sick, robots don't take vacation, robots are highly repeatable, robots don't get tired, and robots have the capability to work lights out 24/7. We are seeing more and more manufacturing companies that are looking for robots to automate their processes. Some people would think that robotic automation is controversial. There are people who are concerned that robots will take away their job, but that's not true. Robots will not take away jobs. Robots will not take away people's jobs, they replace tasks. The analogy that I think of with automation is automation in the home. Dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, do you see that replace people, they don't replace our family members, instead they free up our time, so we can go do other things. The tasks that robots are designed to replace are the 3Ds, dull, dangerous, and dirty. Though, by having a robot perform these tasks, humans are able to do the things that we do best, which is create, problem solve, and communicate. In my opinion robots are a path to growth for individuals as well as humanity as a whole, and the field of robotics is a growing industry with opportunities for individuals who are truly interested in learning.

Louise:

Brilliant, thank you Ginny. At this point, I may now turn to Liz, to bring you into the conversation. We probably will be asking you some questions around some of these challenges and also benefits that Ginny has also touched on, but if you wouldn't mind, first of all, if you could maybe tell us a little bit about your career and how you have also ended up working in the field of automation and robotics?

Elizabeth Ajayi:

Absolutely, thanks Louise. I started my career as a tech consultant and ventured into robotics and AI six years ago. Ever since I started this journey, I haven't looked back. Honestly it's been an exciting career and I've worked across many industries and sectors, advising clients, and helping them harness the power of robotics.

Shreya:

Thank you Liz for the introduction, from your perspective, what have been some of the main advances in the field of robotics, you've worked with on your clients, and what sort of benefits do they bring?

Elizabeth:

As I said this technology is rapidly evolving and there are some notable advances to bring to bear. The first one is computing power and speed and how much that advancement has increased the speed and scale at which you can deploy robotics and automation. I have worked with clients to deploy robots and service, giving them the capacity to work 24/7, and our work across many processes. The second advancement is around artificial intelligence, and how this technology has increased in its capacity to make decisions and demonstrate intelligent capabilities. This has allowed us to apply robotics to more complex problems and train robots to make basic decisions or read documents, which sounds like a very simple task, but actually requires a bit of vision and language understanding. The advancement around intelligence has really increased the potential of the technology and the type of problems that it can solve. The third advancement is not necessarily around the technology itself, that is really around the governance frameworks that have been emerging with the platforms and the robotics technologies out there in the market. This is enabling trust, and also making it easy to manage and monitor the robots, and ensure that everyone has confidence, and not just the ability to deliver, but also have the right level of controls.

Louise:

Brilliant, thank you Liz. From what Ginny was saying, it sounds as though the majority of the clients and sectors that she works with are manufacturing and industrial processes. Are you working with clients in similar sectors or you’re using interest in these types of processes from other areas as well?

Elizabeth:

Every industry or sector I know is either deploying robotics or actively looking at how they can pilot it and deploy it. A lot of CEOs have this at the top of their agenda as well. Personally, I've been working a lot in the government sector, working with local councils and helping them deploy this across a number of transactional areas. In the wake of COVID, this wasn't just about automation or efficiency, it was more about delivering more with less, it was more about augmenting council staff with robots, so they can get through the increase in demand for support and things like COVID related grants quite quickly. A lot of practical examples I can bring to life particularly from local government and the work that councils have been doing, but there are similar examples across the private sector, from industries like telecoms to financial services where banks have well underway their robotics program. Some banks actually have thousands of robots supporting their staff members in the back office.

Louise:

Liz, could you tell us a little bit more about, on the flip side, what some of the challenges have been in these types of technologies and processes being implemented.

Elizabeth:

Thank you, Louise. There are three challenges that I tend to come across quite frequently. The first one is really around how to manage the implications of this technology on the workforce, and particularly how to manage the anxiety that arises from the fear of changes to jobs or roles. The second challenge is around navigating how to deploy this technology at a massive scale and really knowing where to start and how to start. The third challenge is around navigating the technical ambiguity that clients sometimes face with deploying this and determining how to set it up within their IT infrastructure in a sustainable way.

Louise:

What or if any real-world robotic solutions do you think we will start seeing in the future, so maybe in five years’ time. Liz, if I might throw that one to you first.

Elizabeth:

The nature of the robotic solutions we see will start to change in the next two to three years. It would move away from robotic applications relating to transactional administrative work, to seeing robotic applications in specialist fields. That new journey of robotics will be designed to assist and augment humans. They will be designed to work more closely alongside humans in fields like law, and particularly in the medical fields as well, to help with heavy lifting, and as much work as the robot can do, so that all humans are laser focused at solving complex problems. In the future, I am looking forward to having a robot that helps me in my day-to-day role, so I can spend less hours at work, but on a serious note, I am looking forward to doing more and doing more of what I love, with the support of robot that works alongside me on my laptop and helps me with a lot of the administrative process and repeatable stuff that I do today.

Louise:

I like the sound of your robot, Liz, and I would very much like to meet it, when he arrives.

Elizabeth:

I’ll probably name it after you, Louise.

Louise:

Thank you Ginny, if I might put the same question to yourself about future expectations, maybe on the hardware side rather than the software side that Liz has touched on.

Ginny:

Thanks Louise. Advanced vision systems are the game changers, and we happen to be partnered with the world leader in safety and vision sensors for robotics and you can see there are Lidar and 3D cameras changing the world of autonomous mobile robots right now. Already inputs from advanced vision systems are allowing autonomous mobile robots or AMRs to navigate warehouse and office environments in real time. Going back to what Shreya mentioned in the introduction, it’s very similar technology, in fact, it’s very similar algorithms, that allow those vacuum cleaning robots to navigate. Imagine that on an industrial scale, imagine that underneath pallets, imagine that moving through an industrial manufacturing or distribution warehouse, that’s the picture you need to have in your mind. Where we will see AMRs in the future, probably this will be a safe and human replacement for forklifts. Forklift accidents and injuries cause significant damage to humans and property, and unfortunately they are an incredibly common occurrence. They usually result in long term damage to human beings and highly expensive damage to property. Advanced vision systems are the key to creating an autonomous mobile solution for forklifts. This is one of the examples where we will see a real-world solution in the very near future.

Shreya:

Thank you Ginny. I can definitely imagine the warehouse scenario where autonomous robots are walking the lanes on their own, but when I think about my relationship with robots, I almost think like autonomous cars and things of that nature. Where do you think the relationship between humans and robots are going in the future? I turn to you first, Ginny.

Ginny:

Thanks Shreya. Going forward humanity will definitely benefit from robots in two ways. From a practical standpoint, robots will help us scale our operations quickly. Tying into what Liz said, once you have experience with one robot, it is so easy to see the possibility with more robots and to the scalability of production. Secondly, robots will give us an opportunity to explore our ability to learn and there will be a question that we will be answering in the future and that question will be is it humane to ask a person to do a task that a robot would perform better?

Shreya:

Fascinating viewpoint, definitely one for future conversations, but if I turn to you, Liz, you already have your vision of you little laptop robot that you’re going to name after Louise, but what do you think their relationship will look like in the future?

Elizabeth:

The relationship between human or robots in the future will be quite interesting and it would take different forms. You would have humans working very closely with robots, as I said earlier, with robots acting as personal assistants, or providing assistance in some capacity. In the future you’d also start to see very well-developed robot and human reporting structures, with humans looking after robots, supervising them, and managing how they work. What is probably most exciting is how robots and humans will work alongside in the future to innovate, to solve problems, particularly in sections where we haven’t been able to innovate really quickly because of reducing human capacity.

Shreya:

Wonderful, thank you both for that discussion. For our listeners, Ginny, do you have any recommendations for reading resources?

Ginny:

Absolutely, there is a book I recommend, and the book is called Mindset by Carol Dweck. This book describes two basic responses when we’re faced with a challenge. We can either respond with the fixed mindset, which is generally one that fears change and believe we are incapable of learning new things; or we can respond with a growth mindset, which is open to learning and enjoys challenges, because they help us reach our full potential. The industry of robotics is growing, this is an ever-expanding horizon, and for those people who are interested in learning, this is a great opportunity to start right now today. You can find me, Ginny Foster on LinkedIn, that’s Ginny with a G, and you can see more videos on Neff Power’s YouTube channel and on our website.

Shreya:

Thank you Ginny, I turn to you Liz, any recommendations for our listeners.

Elizabeth:

My recommendation would be to tap into the research out there around the future of robotics as a technology, but also how it would impact the world of work. PwC has particularly done a lot of research in this space, which is all accessible on the website, but I am also happy to talk about robotics anytime. I am on LinkedIn, as Elizabeth Ajayi and I constantly share blogs and content around robotics and the work that I do.

Shreya:

Brilliant, thank you Liz as well. What we’ve actually really heard from both of you, obviously the world of robotics is not just evolving, but also bringing new solutions to how we work and how the wider world is operating. Obviously, Louise the laptop robot will be around in the not-too-distant future. On a more serious note, a big thank you to both, yourself Liz and to you Ginny for joining us today and taking part in this discussion. Also, thank you to our listeners, thank you for joining us as always. You can find us on reputable podcast outlets by searching for the A to Z of tech. As always, don’t forget to subscribe, so you can join us for our next episode.


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