Robots: Boosting Efficiency, Saving Time and Improving the Workplace


Robots are the poster children of what’s popularly called the Second Industrial Revolution. But they’re not as new as you may think.

The first industrial robot was deployed in 1961 in an assembly line at the General Motors Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey. Weighing in at 4000 pounds, this robot transported die castings from an assembly line and welded them to auto bodies. It was the brainchild of engineer George Duvol and his business partner Joseph Engelberger, founders of the world’s first robot manufacturing company, Unimation. The robot itself was called Unimate.

Fast forward 62 years: in May of 2023, Universal Robots showcases the world’s first “cobot” spot-welder at Automate 2023, designed to work with humans by assisting with repetitive tasks.


Technological advancements

Today’s robots are lighter, smarter, secure, adaptable, quick to implement, simple to program. Several factors are driving adoption: increased efficiency, improved production, higher output, minimized cycle time, safety, lower costs, reliability.  In addition, advancing technologies are making robots more self-sufficient, integrated…and versatile.

Artificial Intelligence, more capable cameras, tactile sensors, etc., enable robots to better understand their environment, detect and recognize objects, and interact with the world more effectively. Companies like Waymo and Tesla use AI to train their vehicles to navigate complex road environments autonomously. In factories and warehouses, Robots can analyze machinery’s maintenance needs, monitor stock levels, and track packages. They can switch seamlessly between products, thus eliminating the need for line stoppages.

With companies under pressure to increase capital investments and decrease product development time, adopting automated, agile production systems is crucial to maintaining manufacturing competitiveness.


Industry-specific applications

All this makes robots very attractive to production lines and logistics companies. But today’s robots are not confined to factories and warehouses.

Service Robots are interfacing with humans in various settings, such as the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot or Pepper, the robot capable of conversing and interacting with retail customers.

Agricultural Robots are changing the way crops are planted and harvested, with autonomous tractors, robotic harvesters, and drones deployed for crop monitoring.

Healthcare and Medical Robots are enhancing healthcare and the field of medicine with their unparalleled precision that minimizes the risk of infections and extends the capabilities of medical professionals. Robots today perform as robot nurses and surgical assistants. For example, the Da Vinci Surgical System allows surgeons to perform complex and minimally invasive surgeries with greater precision, and has already been used in more than six million surgeries worldwide including prostatectomies and gynecological procedures.


A growing industry

The recent growth spurt in robotics is so new and so pronounced that statistics are still sketchy; however, estimated demand is so great that, according to Statistica, the worldwide market for industrial robotics is projected to increase at an annual growth rate of 2.83% between 2024 and 2028, reaching a staggering US$9.31bn in 2024. The warehouse robotics market should show growth  from $6.1 billion in 2023 to $10.5 billion by 2028, at a compound annual growth rate of 11.4%.


Impact on labor and employment

Meet two of the top robots introduced in 2020: Brillo, the bartending robot- who takes orders and mixes drinks, and Pazzi, the pizza-maker, who does all the work from kneading the dough to boxing the pizza. There’s even a robot designed to assemble Ikea furniture!

According to current predictions from McKinsey, robots will only replace 5% of employment entirely. Moreover, a report from the World Economic Forum indicates that while the introduction of robots in the workplace may eliminate jobs, robots will also create 133 million new ones—a net gain of 58 million more desirable and less dangerous human jobs.

Successfully integrating robots into the workplace will require fostering employees rather than jobs. This means businesses must do more than upskill and reskill existing employees; they must communicate transparently.

A University of London study shows 53% of employees are dubious when a company promises that its product or service has AI capabilities. 


Upscaling humans

Employers will need enhanced social skills, empathy, and creativity in addition to educating employees to work alongside Robots. Employees, on the other hand, need to understand that jobs have always evolved and will continue to evolve.

The current trend of human-robot collaboration, for example, emphasizes the need to design robots that can work alongside humans, complementing their skills and assisting in tasks. This means co-creating robotic systems that focus in particular on safety, intuitive interfaces, and physical interaction.


Global Market Trends and Forecast

Jobs evolve as industries evolve, and the robot industry is evolving rapidly: the new World Robotics 2023 Industrial Robotics and Service Report indicates that 553,052 industrial robots were installed in factories around the world in 2022, a year-on-year growth rate of 5%.

One key trend behind this demand is global retail eCommerce sales, which nearly doubled from 2019 to 2023 – COVID years – from $3.3 trillion up to an estimated $6.3 trillion. Deliveries are now a major driver of certain freight sectors, particularly air freight.  

This growth demands true end-to-end e-Commerce fulfillment and sophisticated logistics solutions to enhance system interoperability, such as increased digitalization, improved customer experience, and the optimization of last-mile delivery. Given these kinds of demands, the future should herald more significant numbers of increasingly sophisticated robots incorporated into more areas of life, working with humans.


Technology shapes innovation

Several trends and technologies are shaping this innovation in robotics and redefining how robots interact with the world and collaborate with human workers.

Boston Dynamics has “humanized” its industrial “cobot” as a kind of super-pet: Spot the robot dog is an agile mobile robot that performs inspections at construction and manufacturing sites as well as on facilities considered dangerous for humans such as oil rigs and nuclear plants. A dynamic sensing platform, Spot provides valuable insights into routine operations, site health, and potentially hazardous situations. 

Robots can also improve quality of human life. Exoskeletons, for example, are wearable robotic suits that enable individuals with impaired mobility to walk and perform daily tasks.


Technologies driving growth

Natural Language Processing (NLP)Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (ML) -- including deep learning, reinforcement learning, and neural networks -- enhance robot perception, decision-making, and control, playing a significant role in robotics innovation. Over time, robots can now adapt to changing environments, learn from data, and improve their performance.

Edge computing, with its ability to process data closer to the source, allows robots to perform real-time analysis and decision-making at the source, without relying solely on cloud connectivity. This provides robotic systems with faster response times, improved autonomy, and enhanced privacy.

Not surprisingly, today several universities and technical schools worldwide offer programs in robotics and automation, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which offers a Robotics Master's Program to equip students with the skills needed for this field.


Ethical and societal implications

Robots are now part of our daily lives, from producing the goods we buy to vacuuming our homes. Their adoption is increasing faster than global GDPs or stock markets, shifting the way we live and work at a rate most humans find both exhilarating and threatening.

We may like having a robot do the vacuuming (even in our absence!), but programming that robot means uploading information about your household and routine. Who has access to that information, and what happens to it?

Scaling automation and artificial intelligence across organizations is both expensive and time-consuming, requiring more than capital investment in technology. Successful implementation requires a shift in organizational culture that includes employee buy-in and engagement, supported by a commitment to transparency about where the firm is headed and how automation will play a role. Companies that ignore this will lose in the longer-term.

The key to success in this volatile environment depends on balancing innovation with responsibility.