As a UK robotics designer and manufacturer you’d imagine that we’d have a pretty clear view on the question: what is a robot? And more particularly: what is a commercial robot?
A few discussions with colleagues recently has indicated that there’s a pretty broad range of interpretations in the Tharsus office. One thing we all agree on though is that, to get robotics into use to increase productivity or enable new lines of business, we need to design robots to give a commercial payback from day one. Keep reading if you want to know how we do that.
But back to the question: what are robots? Officially, the term “robot” comes from Czech “robota” meaning “forced labour”, and generally, the definition is something like: a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer. The complexity of robotics design therefore really boils down to what actions it has to do automatically. At one end of this spectrum are humanoid robots (think of C3PO, Pepper or NASA’s Valkerie) that need to include a level of complexity we haven’t really achieved yet in order to automatically replicate human interaction. At the other end of the spectrum you have the robot arms commonly found on car manufacturing lines. Both can be called a “robot” and undertake complex actions automatically, but they’re differentiated by how complex the actions are and this drives a massive difference in cost, performance and commercial viability.
This idea is at the heart of our approach to helping our customers navigate the path to delivering commercial robots. The basis of the idea is that many businesses can define a new type of “smart machine” which could be designed and deployed very quickly and offer rapid payback. These first machines are likely to work collaboratively with humans and offer a rapid increase in productivity. Once this “smart machine” platform has been delivered and is paying back, the next iteration is to start adding layers of autonomy such that the machine can take on additional complex tasks. By taking this route, businesses can navigate their way to deploying fully autonomous robotics which are tailor-made for their use-case and which provide commercial advantage at each stage.
Of course, in some cases, it will look like only a moon-shot project will work. Projects that need the first robot to deliver a high level of complexity will also need a higher down-stream pay-back to justify the development effort. Examples of other UK robot designers like CMR’s surgical robot or FiveAI’s autonomous cars need deep pockets and patience to see a return. In many cases however, by being ruthless in identifying what a robot truly needs to do you can identify your minimum-viable-product and this can often be simpler and quicker to deliver than you first think.
So, what is a robot? In our world, it’s a complex electro-mechanical machine with an appropriate level of autonomy and that delivers commercial value. Regardless of how complex the task is, it seems that, if you can design the human+robot system to simplify the robot’s task, you will be able to design, build and deploy your robot more quickly and achieve a more rapid commercial return. For many businesses, this should be the first step on a robotics and automation roadmap.
If you’d like to talk to us about how robots can transform your business, contact the author of this article, our CCO Tim at Tim.Ensor@tharsus.co.uk