Robot Fors

Robots are not to be feared. They will safeguard jobs by keeping our businesses competitive.
Experienced mechatronics expert Jamie Marsay, director of newly-formed cutting edge Tees firm Applied Scientific Technologies, explains how…

With the Brexit cloud looming, there is some worry about how post-Brexit Britain will manage to globally compete economically or indeed manage to sustain itself domestically.

For centuries, as an island nation, we have relied on migrant workers to bolster local labour in our fields and factories.

With the potential and likely abolition of free movement of people (and the weakened pound against the Euro – making it less attractive to migrate), one wonders how we’ll cope to feed ourselves with domestic product or maintain a healthy export market.

Perhaps it has been this reliance on migrant workers that has led to the UK becoming one of the poorest investors in robotics and automation.

The UK is ranked 13th in productivity (GDP per hour worked), one of the lowest of the ‘developed’ countries in Europe. This compares with Germany being ranked 7th and Norway taking the top spot.

Perhaps a correlation can be made between productivity and the uptake of robots and automation in the workplace. Germany has 170 robots per 100,000 workers and the UK has 33.

If the technology exists, why undertake mundane tasks manually? Most people certainly wouldn’t choose to wash their clothes by hand, given the option.

So how can robots (the things that look like human arms) and machine intelligence help in our factories and fields, and what technological advances are likely?

The concept of robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning is nothing new. Pressing the button on your mobile phone and asking it for directions is mainstream. We have ‘bots’ in our computers that automatically recognise spam emails. Our cameras recognise our faces and software decides whether we can get a mortgage, or not.

Games platforms project a live moving image of the player so that they can immerse themselves into their game (XBox’s Kinect). Robots that work interactively and collaboratively (known as ‘Cobots’) are becoming ever more prevalent.

Tie a raft of existing technologies together (and throw in some emerging technologies for fun) and we have built an intelligent and flexible robotic worker. So, we no longer have to rely on humans to remove the green bits from strawberries whilst discarding the rotten fruit. The technology exists to pick and handle an oddly shaped muffin, with the lights in the factory turned off. We can use robots equipped with machine vision to pick a correct size bolt from a box of mixed parts and fit it to a car.

But why limit robots’ use in our factories and fields? We are seeing these technologies more and more in science and research.

Imagine mixing 20 ingredients together and adjusting the amount of each ingredient independently to see which combination has the best potential of curing the next disease. Using brute force to try every combination and permutation of every variation to map the experimental space will take a very long time.

Scientists typically design an experiment and choose a small number of experiments to get an idea of what happens, they run the experiment and analyse the data. They’ll do a further limited number of additional experiments to statistically model the effect of changing the parameters.

Traditionally this was all done manually. Today, advancements allow us to computer model ‘in-silico’ (digitally) what will happen before any chemicals or biologics are used. Robots perform the experiments autonomously and the data is captured automatically to verify the in-silico model.

The data may be shared in a centralised cloud-based system. Collating ‘big data’ sets, collected by researchers all over the world, allows us to share, analyse and be smarter with the data. Machine learning and artificial intelligence is used to scour all the shared data, looking for patterns to determine what experiments could be done next.

This allows us to get to the answer with less cost, but more crucially quicker…and before the competition. Using vision, artificial intelligence, collaborative robots, machine learning, and data mining we should have robots that just need to be given the problem to solve and autonomously they will provide the answer.

Lots of technologies exist across many engineering and scientific disciplines and they are ready and waiting to be connected together.

Robots are not to be feared. Their use and uptake in this country will safeguard jobs by keeping us and our businesses competitive.

Using cobots that are flexible to use, intelligent and can be quickly and easily re-deployed and re-purposed in a business gives us the same degree of flexibility we have with human labour. Robots work all day and all night, and never come in with a bad head from the night before.

Mechanisation on farms and spearheading the industrial revolution propelled this country forward. There wasn’t mass unemployment. In fact, many jobs have been created as a result.

Using robots allows us to concentrate on adding value to our products and services within our businesses. They allow us to do better and less mundane work, whilst staying competitive in the marketplace.

If the UK is to prosper post-Brexit, we’ll need more robotics, artificial intelligence and automation. We can’t halt the global advancement in technology, we mustn’t ignore it and surely we must embrace and be part of it so we don’t get left behind.

• Jamie Marsay, who had previously spent 17 years with Stokesley’s Labman Automation, is director of new Stockton-based firm Applied Scientific Technologies. The firm plans to forge a niche global market in high-end technologies and robotics.


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