Cobots Are Coming

Robots at work

I hope things change, but at the moment, I would have to say it seems China is getting ahead of us in many ways. In the Axios newsletter, which I read every day to keep on top of strategic happenings, there was a story about JD.com, a gigantic Chinese e-commerce company. The story said, “JD.com has built a big new Shanghai fulfillment center that can organize, pack and ship 200,000 orders a day. It employs four people — all of whom service the robots.” In addition to smart warehouses, the company is working on self-driving trucks and drones to deliver the goods anywhere in China. Chinese executives have said they are planning a new east-to-west, north-to-south package delivery logistics system which will be able to deliver a package, ordered by 11 AM, the same day almost anywhere in the country.

Some pundits see nothing but gloom and doom with regard to robots; millions of lost jobs. However, the warehouse with robots and four people is but one aspect of the future. The Chinese are ahead on infrastructure, but the United States and Europe still lead the world in innovation. One new area is the development of cobots. 

 

Above the Mr. Mofongo grand café and restaurant is the Mofongo’s Distillery & Cocktail bar. The demonstration of the entire process of distilling from basic ingredients to the final product is impressive, but the most distinctive feature is the 26-foot high liquor cabinet behind the cocktail bar with 56 different homemade liquors and exceptional rum varieties. This huge selection is not reachable by humans, but the Armando robot arm can take it in stride. The spectacle draws in curious customers, but it also helps bartenders. The robot arm is not eliminating jobs; it is providing assistance to humans. You might say it is collaborating. This is an example of a new class of technology called cobots.

The Wall Street Journal reported in “Your Next Robot Encounter: Dinner, Drinks and a Massage“, that 20 manufacturers around the world are selling such cobots and  that cobots made up 5% of the $14 billion industrial-robot market in 2017. Research by Minneapolis-based venture-capital firm Loup Ventures said that sales will jump to 27% of a $33 billion market by 2025. The applications are endless. The Journal reported that in Japan, a cobot boxes takeout dumplings, and in Singapore, robots give soft-tissue massages. Thousands of cobots are being developed and sold around the world. Robots can do amazing things, but they can’t do everything, at least yet. Cobots can give a boost to human productivity. I like the way the Dutch bar owner, Mr. Beijk, said it best. “Robots are going to become more and more helpful. By doing the monotonous tasks, they give us the time and flexibility to be human — such as taking even better care of our guests.”