In this article, we share notable advancements in robotics and highlight use cases affecting manufacturing.

Using artificial intelligence in the workplace—especially in manufacturing—isn't new. Every day, manufacturing workers rely on automation and assembly line tools that do much of the heavy lifting for them. Still, the use of robotics is on the rise. A combination of technological improvements and support for asynchronous work brought on by the COVID pandemic is creating new use cases for robotics in manufacturing.

Just how widespread is the use of robotics in manufacturing? According to a recent PwC survey[1] , 59% of manufacturers are already using some form of robotics technology. That number is likely to increase. In the same survey, 47% of respondents said that they were prioritizing industrial internet-of-things (IoT) technology to accelerate workplace automation over the next 1-2 years.


Common Robot Applications in Manufacturing

Within manufacturing, there are some classic use cases for robotics. Large factories, like those that produce cars, were some of the first to adopt robotics to improve productivity and handle repetitive tasks. Light manufacturing industries like those that produce clothes, shoes, furniture, consumer electronics, and home appliances also frequently rely on robots to manage workflows.

Robots often work alongside human employees by taking on parts of the job that are hazardous for employees. It's safer to have robots mix chemicals, paints or other materials that have a certain level of toxicity to them while humans work on safer and higher value parts of the manufacturing process. Robots also lessen the potential for human error due to overwork or from doing too many repetitive tasks in a row. A 2017 study from Vanson Bourne shows that as much as 23% of unplanned downtime in the manufacturing sector occurs because of human error, compared to 9% in other industries.[2] In addition to cutting down on human error, robots also improve the overall return on investment by being able to work without downtime.


Rise of the Cobot

Cobots, also known as collaborative robots, a term coined by researchers at Northwestern University, are the next phase of robotics in manufacturing.[3] Cobots work with humans directly on more complex tasks than simple assembly and can make relatively sophisticated decisions on their own. Cobots are becoming more common as artificial intelligence technology improves and becomes widely available. When cobots are used with Internet of Things (IoT) technologies like sensors and mesh networks, they can stay connected and also recognize a variety of things in their field of view. In much the same way that a Roomba or iRobot vacuum senses where doors or walls are, IoT sensors work to set up boundaries and note hazards for a robot. This helps them make decisions and complete tasks alongside their human coworkers.

A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology experiment demonstrated the use of cobots named Bipedal Isotropic Lattice Locomoting Explorers (BILL-E).[4] These cobots, which look like small arms, can be used in groups to build complex structures like airplanes. BILL-E bots are basically like Thing from Addams Family in robot form—the arms are equipped with cameras that help them move around the structure they are building—connecting all the parts together. Multiple BILL-E units can stay on the finished structure and make repairs as needed. In the pharmaceutical sector collaborative robot arms are used for mixing, counting, dispensing, and inspection, to offer consistent outcomes for business-critical items.

Cobots are gaining popularity with businesses of all sizes in part because they are cheaper than other types of assembly line robots that are often large, fixed in location, and require a significant upfront investment. Cobots are typically smaller, cheaper, and can work in a broader range of settings, which makes them applicable for small, medium, and large businesses. Beroe Procurement sees the market for cobots growing at a CAGR of 43% in the coming years to reach approximately $9.2 billion by 2025.[5]


Mobile Machines

Cobots are not the only evolution in robotics for manufacturing. IBM and Boston Dynamics have partnered on Spot, a mobile robot that can work in a variety of situations—not just the assembly line. Spot can move from station to station or room to room performing tasks. Say, for example, that a company needs an equipment inspector—that's a role for Spot.

This type of robot represents an evolution in terms of how artificial intelligence is applied to create new devices that are not fixed to particular locations on the factory floor. Robots like Spot can work alongside fixed assembly robots, other cobots, or humans. In this way, manufacturers can create lights-out factories, or where robots manage the entire production end-to-end, with almost no human involvement.

During the pandemic, robots like Spot could have helped business continuity by being able to work like humans while humans were quarantined at home. Going forward, these robots may make up an increasing percentage of production work while humans look on remotely. As network strength improves connectivity through technologies like 5G and cloud computing, factories of the future could be overseen by humans who are not location dependent, while the day-to-day work is completed by a team of cobots and edge robots like Spot.


What to Discuss with your Banker

You may find it useful to collaborate with your banker as soon as you begin considering acquiring robotics. You’ll want to discuss:

  • How much you expect to spend on initial set-up costs, such as installation, systems integration, training and consulting.
  • Get detailed estimates from any vendors who might be involved with the project.
  • How much you anticipate spending on ongoing costs, such as training new employees, hardware maintenance and software upgrades.
  •  Since this is a rapidly-advancing tech sector, you can expect to periodically upgrade, fix or replace the apps that drive the robots.
  • How long it will take to achieve a return on investment; with Cobots being a less expensive choice for automation in manufacturing, you may be surprised how quickly you can achieve a return on the initial costs.

Ready to Help

PNC Equipment Finance offers a highly focused financing team with experience in the robotics industry. We can facilitate the lease or purchase of advanced technology from start to finish. For more information, visit