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OM in the News: What Robots Can’t Do

August 11, 2017

Most of our blogs about robots extol their cost-saving virtues and the explosion of new and exciting OM applications. “But on the front line of automation, where robots truly are poised to displace humans from their jobs, some cutting-edge technology is testing the best minds in Japanese industry,” writes The Financial Times (Aug. 7, 2017).

Making a bento — little portions of rice, fish, meat, pickles and other delicacies packed in a plastic box and sold for a few hundred yen — is currently a miserable job done by hand on grim midnight production lines, so that Tokyo stores can be filled with lunches by the morning. Tofu or vegetables are soft and irregularly shaped, and are extremely hard to grasp. “There are so many things that robots still can’t do,” says a Japanese robotics manufacturer.

It also takes a lot of people, time and money to get robots working. The engineering can cost 3 to 8 times, sometimes even 20 times, more than the hardware. “The simplest thing we cannot do is exert large force,” says the head of robot maker Yaskawa. “An Olympic weightlifter can lift several times their own body weight, but for every kilogram you move with a robot, the robot will weigh 10kg.” Pound for pound, then, even the average human is 10 times stronger than a factory robot.

Finally, a major challenge is agility. Most robots are single-handed. “We can make the arm but we can’t really make the hand,” says one manufacturer. That lack of agility is linked to one of the biggest practical problems with factory robots: the difficulty of reprogramming them to do something else. There was a time when firms tried to go to full automation on auto assembly lines, but it didn’t work because the vehicle changes. If you wanted the same model in the same color for 10 years you could fully automate it. But, of course, it wouldn’t sell.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Summarize all the limitations of robots?
  2. What is the trend for robotic installations?







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