The vision of Industry 4.0 processes includes automating tasks for the greatest efficiency and productivity. Florian Pestoni, CEO of InOrbit, sees progress – but additional advancements depend on software developers entering the robotics space.
Pestoni shares his insights on automation, growing robot fleets to perform critical tasks, and software developers’ role in innovation.
Do you see business leaders prioritizing automation in 2022?
Pestoni: Automation has been top of mind, not just for the past two years but prior. However, it has been accelerated during the pandemic, in many cases, for business continuity and overcoming challenges related to the labor shortage.
Although businesses are looking for processes to automate, they often only look at a small part of their operations and reap some localized rewards. There is a need to think more broadly about how automation can benefit the organization holistically.
What is driving the push to automate?
Pestoni: Businesses tend to turn to automation to solve a specific problem, for example, moving pallets from a dock or cleaning. They see localized ROI as productivity per employee who used to perform those tasks increases dramatically. But it’s really just the start. Companies need to optimize overall process flow – if there is a bottleneck somewhere else, there is no benefit.
Is robot implementation increasing?
Pestoni: A few decades ago, automation and robotics were confined to large manufacturing operations – the typical customer was an automaker. Robots could cost in excess of $1 million each, and manufacturers built the factory around the robot, not the other way around. Additionally, robots often operated in cages, and they took a lot of effort to program.
Now, through technology advancements, robots are busting out of the factory and entering every workspace. Today you can see robots working at farms, in airports, on sidewalks making deliveries, and in stores. Logistics and supply chains are also aggressive adopters, embracing end-to-end automation.
In our RobOps Masters Interview Series, Aaron Prather, Senior Technical Advisor at FedEx, stresses that different types of robots have to work together. It doesn’t make sense to have one company provide cleaning robots as well as depalletizing and forklift robots. We’re starting to see the demand for orchestration.
What are some of the most popular use cases for robots?
Pestoni: Humans, robots and AI are working together to solve a lot of vexing problems related to sustainability, food production, shelter, and more. We are seeing more adoption in light manufacturing on flexible production lines that shift from one product to the next.
When you start working with robots, it’s amazing to see the progress and innovation, but people are still a part of the equation. Robots are made for a purpose, but they’re not great at improvising or problem solving – people are.
This very much in line with the discussion about the future of work. We are seeing work shift from purely physical to more knowledge-based work. Today, employees may not need specialized training or physical capabilities to work – they can now be robot supervisors. Additionally, one person can be responsible for five forklifts instead of one, managing them remotely and only intervening when necessary. I see it as the evolution of tools.
Is robotics and automation software most often open-source or proprietary?
Pestoni: We are seeing software play a bigger role in automation. In the past, solutions builders focused on hardware design. Now, sensors and actuators are becoming commoditized, and it’s the software that makes a smart robot.
In the past, people developed their own software from scratch, which was time-consuming. The Robot Operating System (ROS) has made it more practical. Thanks to this open-source community, you can buy a platform off the shelf and ramp up quickly. Developers can build additional functionality on this foundation. Work still has to be done to address specific problems, but it is accelerating the industry tremendously.
However, the market is in the early stages, so proprietary solutions also have a place.
What advice can you offer software developers and ISVs about the future of work, automation and robotics?
Pestoni: What’s really exciting for software developers is that robots are controlled by software. You can definitely enter this space because you don’t have to be a roboticist – you don’t need to build the robot, just control it.
Communities are emerging that can help you get started, in places from Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh to Denmark. The ROS community is also active and holds an annual conference that grows every year.
You’re also welcome to check out our group, at RobOps.org, a non-commercial group that meets monthly to share operational best practices and host guest speakers.