Five key trends in automation right now

Rasmus Smet Jensen, Vice President, Marketing & Strategy at Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), presents his view on the most significant current trends in the field of automation.

Automation involving autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) holds high potential with regard to streamlining and growth for a large number of companies. The self-driving helpers can increase warehouse capacity, improve the working environment and free up valuable human capacity. Here at MiR, we have put together a list of the key trends and experiences likely to influence the spread of automation over the coming year.

Trend 1: Investments in automation to pick up again 

In recent years, war, the energy crisis, and the after-effects of the COVID pandemic have caused rising uncertainty concerning developments in the social economy. This uncertainty led many companies to acknowledge that they were obliged to postpone their automation projects. However, we now see that companies active in, for example, the logistics, electronics and automotive industries – as well as the production sector in general – are gradually showing an increasing tendency to relaunch their projects, and we expect the level more-or-less to normalise by the end of 2023.

Developments in technology and the prospect of greater stability are boosting the demand for new logistics solutions and expanded automation on the global market. More and more businesses are investing time and funds in logistics solutions designed to help them remain competitive within their chosen field. According to McKinsey’s Global Industrial Robotics Survey 2022, a number of companies are likely to devote as much as 25 percent of their invested capital to automated systems over the coming five years.

Trend 2: Shortage of labour demands automation

As the markets have begun to stabilise once more and production gradually approaches its pre-pandemic level, companies still have one major challenge to tackle: the continued shortage of skilled labour. At the same time, unstable supply chains have encouraged many companies to bring their production apparatus closer to their domestic markets via reshoring and onshoring, which inevitably exacerbates the issue of finding people to fill even more vacancies.

Through automation, these companies can ensure optimal utilisation of resources and free up human hands and minds for more complex tasks. As an added bonus, these same companies may note that robots actually improve the working environment by taking over routine assignments that are often almost synonymous with monotonous and inappropriate work postures. On the other hand, one of the major challenges in the field of automation is that there is a current shortage of employees with the skills to implement the robots themselves. This demands added focus on training, both within individual companies and in society as a whole, if we are to improve companies’ opportunities to use automation to recruit and retain staff.

Trend 3: Inclusion of human colleagues is crucial

While more and more companies are increasingly investing in autonomous, mobile robots and other forms of automation, the idea of having robots as colleagues is not necessarily viewed as a cause for celebration among the human staff. Many employees start to feel uncertain about their own assignments and job opportunities, and one of the key tasks facing companies is to allay such fears. In actual fact, it is simple, safe and intuitive for employees to take ownership of the robots; they just need to be given the opportunity to do so.

The strategy for a successful introduction of automation is thus for companies to communicate clearly before, during and after implementation of the robots. When automating a process, it is essential to involve employees with the requisite process skills and knowledge from the very start, thereby allowing them to make their mark on the solution. Involving employees at an early stage can also help them to see how the robots have the potential to make a positive difference to future work.

In order to facilitate this work for the companies in question, we at MiR have launched initiatives such as an online academy where employees can take short courses to build up a fundamental understanding of our products, along with a general understanding of how the robots function. The intention here is to provide employees with everything they need to ensure that the implementation of the robots is a success.

Trend 4: Larger fleets of robots demand robust software solutions

As a result of the increased investments in automation, the number of robots at the individual companies is steadily rising. This applies in particular to major global companies, which typically have large numbers of robots today, handling a variety of tasks at multiple physical locations. In view of this, it is essential to implement robust and advanced software solutions to make sure that these extensive fleets of robots function optimally.

If large-scale robot automation is to be a success, it will also be necessary to reduce the time used – and the complexity involved – in controlling each individual robot. For example, it must be easy and intuitive to adjust the robots’ programming whenever they are to perform new and different tasks. In such situations, it is simply impractical to have to adjust each robot manually. Software for intelligent fleet management is likewise crucial in dealing with everyday routines: for example, ensuring that the robots return automatically to their charging points, that they do not constitute an obstacle to each other or their human colleagues, and that they can be integrated into companies’ other systems such as ERP and WMS.

Finally, software is necessary for collecting and analysing data that can then be used to improve the efficiency and operational reliability of the robots. We at MiR therefore focus just as heavily on developing software as we do on the actual robots.

Trend 5: The market demands flexibility

The market for mobile robots and automation is still maturing, but there should be no doubt that it is developing at an exponential rate. We at MiR are noting an increasing tendency among more and more companies to use mobile robots to automate more – and more varied – work processes than previously.

Companies are also starting to include more complex processes that involve the mobile robots delivering items to other automated systems. Moreover, the newly established automated processes demand robots with the capacity to transport different materials and items of different weight, and to perform a range of functions that align with companies’ production processes. This naturally calls for greater flexibility, both in the choice of robots and accessories, and with regard to the associated software.