Smart robots are invading the factory floor

Do a Google Image search for “robotics” and you’ll see the expected: Cute, humanoid machines reminiscent of a sci-fi movie. “Industrial robotics” yields something else: Images of iron arms on swinging pedestals constructing cars on an assembly line.

The reality is somewhere in between. In 2016, hulking machines are still executing heavy duty tasks, but humanoid types are increasingly working alongside humans on assembly lines.

Manufacturing isn’t that different from everyday life—smart robots are showing up in factories just as they’re invading our homes. “People say the robots are coming,” said Sander van’t Noordende, group chief executive of Accenture’s products group. “But I think they’re already here.”

Eyed robots
Robots have typically been used in an industrial setting to complete repetitive tasks. However, a new wave of robots can adapt and learn new tasks much like a human. In 2012, for instance, Rethink Robotics introduced Baxter, a human-sized robot ranging from 3 feet tall and 165 pounds to 6 feet and 300 pounds. Spend a few minutes teaching Baxter how to do a simple task, like putting something on a conveyor belt or packing a box, and he can do it forever. But you can also teach something Baxter new after that, so he’s endlessly adaptable.

Baxter has since been overshadowed by Sawyer. The younger sibling can lift more than Baxter and do more precision work. Like Baxter, he’s safe to work around. A monitor screen sports animated eyes. “They’re actually indicators,” said Mike Fair, manager of application systems at Rethink Robotics, of Sawyer’s eyes. “You’re not surprised what he’s going to do next.” The eyes also make Sawyer more human-like. “We tried to give him personality,” Fair said. “It makes people feel more comfortable about working around robots.”

Similarly, Germany’s Dipl.-ing has a robot called Anna that can learn a new motion just by being guided to do so. Dipl.-ing also recently spun off a unit that rents robots. “The robot then gets paid like a worker minimum wage, €8.50 per hour,” said Ralph Schmidt. “But this worker then works like three workers, overnights also.”

Expect more of their type. MIT professor Daniela Rus doesn’t see robots replacing humans necessarily, but rather helping them perform physical tasks the way smartphones help us execute mental work today. Rus’s Distributed Robotics Lab at MIT has built robots that can tend gardens, bake cookies and cut a birthday cake, among other tasks.

Influence on manufacturing
While robots are up and coming, they are not commonly seen on the shop floor. Robots are currently used for about 10 percent of all the tasks they could be employed for, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

That’s not always the case. Japan has more industrial robots–306,700–than in all of North America, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). The auto industry also over-indexes for industrial robots. Some 35 percent of all industrial robots are helping make auto parts, while another 29 percent are making the cars themselves, according to the IFR.

Such robots perform unsubtle work like hefting heavy things, painting and applying glue. As the robots get smaller and more agile, their list of chores will expand. Renault uses units that weigh 64 pounds and drives screws into engines.

These more agile robots will likely boost the bots-to-human ratio in manufacturing. The global robotics market will grow from $25.69 billion in 2014 to $53.22 billion in 2020, according to Research and Markets. The Boston Consulting Group predicts by 2025, the share of manufacturing tasks performed by robots will jump to 25 percent.

This year’s outlook for robots
In 2016, there’s evidence that robots can help with more and more tasks. Amazon’s Echo, a cylinder device that uses artificial intelligence, has become a hit. Robots also help vacuum and mow the lawn. In addition, robotic process automation is taking on white-collar work like data entry and some IT jobs.

For years, the manufacturing industry has held the robots largely at bay because of their relative clunkiness. Now that they’re getting more lithe, it will be hard to hold them back.

Todd Wasserman has been writing professionally for over 20 years and was most recently Mashable’s Business Editor. From 1999-2010, he covered the advertising and marketing industry for Brandweek, and became editor-in-chief in 2007. He wrote for Computer Retail Week and various dailys, and freelanced for The New York Times, Business 2.0, The Hollywood Reporter and Inc., among others. He has appeared on CNN, NPR, Fox Business and BBC America.