Digitalization has changed the face of manufacturing in so many positive ways. The ability to extract, transfer, analyze, and derive meaning from data in real time has led to smarter and more efficient production processes, resulting in more profitable and sustainable organizations.
Indeed, the marrying of physical production with digital systems is one of the central tenets of Industry 4.0, where businesses combine the power of technologies such as robotics, connectivity, and artificial intelligence to automate manufacturing and drive out waste. Yet while Industry 4.0 provides many answers on the factory floor, it does have certain limitations. Highly automated processes can deliver unsurpassable levels of consistency and repeatability, which is fine if you want products to look and feel largely the same. But what if functional variance is preferred? Or what if there is a desire to personalize the product being manufactured—something that is increasingly likely in a world where consumer expectations are becoming ever-more sophisticated. How can the demand for more flexible production processes be met? Here, we will explore how Industry 5.0—a collaboration between humans and machines—leads to smarter and more efficient production processes.
Industry 5.0 is a new and exciting paradigm that re-introduces humans to the loop. In this more collaborative world, production-line employees work in perfect unison with automated systems such as robotics, bringing additional value to the production process. Think of workers using robotic arms to perform specific manufacturing procedures, before carrying out other associated tasks themselves.
On the face of it, people and robots working so closely together might sound like an unrealistic utopia. Historically, robotic arms have been isolated behind cages, well away from humans, for safety reasons. But a new generation of so-called collaborative robots (cobots), fitted with enhanced sensor and vision technologies, provides the opportunity to remove these physical boundaries, allowing cobots to work alongside humans. As well as being inherently safe, these cobots are easy to program, quick to set up, and can be fitted on movable platforms, meaning they can be deployed to different parts of the factory floor to perform a much broader range of production line activities.
For Industry 5.0 to become a meaningful reality, cobots now need to start proving themselves across a wide variety of manufacturing sectors and, unsurprisingly, it is the automotive industry that has been first to spot the value of this new way of doing things. At first, cobots were primarily used to assist workers on the shop floor, carrying out tasks such as the picking and placing of components, which acts as a means of speeding up the production process. But it hasn’t ended there. Other applications in automotive part manufacturing and finished vehicle assembly include polishing, gluing, surface-quality inspection, and push-button testing, among many others. For instance, cobots at Ford‘s plant in Cologne, Germany finely sand the contours of vehicles rolling off its Fiesta production line, smoothing the entire body of every car in just 35 seconds.
Meanwhile, in the electronics sector, cobots are proving their worth by carrying out more intricate tasks. Industrial organization HMK Robotics use cobots to position tiny parts in the assembly of printed circuit boards, helping companies manage the trend toward miniaturization. The lightweight, portable nature of the robotic arms means these activities can be carried out in workbench environments, where they can be overseen by humans.
So, it is clear that we are seeing the more widespread adoption of cobots across the manufacturing sector. And with relatively low upfront capital costs, certainly in comparison to larger robotic arms, it is fair to say that cobots are democratizing automation—making it available to a broader range of companies, notably smaller to medium-sized firms.
Also, the increased use of cobots proves that automation does not necessarily mean the end of human roles in production environments. Far from it, in fact. Industry 5.0, as a wider concept, promises to deliver what can be described as the best of both worlds, merging the accepted benefits of robotics in terms of consistency and repeatability with the advanced cognitive capabilities of humans in areas such as critical thinking. This more collaborative environment—based on a partnership between humans and machines—is likely to result in smarter and more efficient production activities, with greater flexibility at their core.
Industry 5.0 heralds the beginning of an exciting new era of manufacturing, with creativity coming back to the fore. The march of the robots is over, it seems, to be replaced by more human-centric solutions. While Industry 5.0 will retain the consistency and repeatability of machines, it will re-introduce human cognitive abilities to the production process. Over time, this closer collaboration between people and machines will usher newer innovative ways of working to a broader range of industries.
Lee Hibbert is a content account director at Publitek. An award-winning journalist, editor, and content strategist, Lee has more than 25 years' technical editorial experience. He has led and managed teams across print and digital titles, having been the long-standing editor of the IMechE's flagship publication Professional Engineering in the UK.
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