Will the 2020s be the decade of the robot?

4th March 2020
Joe Bush

The robot is not a new invention. George Devol applied for the first patents in 1954, and they were widely used in manufacturing to carry out repetitive tasks as early as the 1970s. However, although they have clearly been very much a part of our past, as John Johnson, NPI Director, Chemigraphic highlights, they are also key to the future.

The robots of the future will differ those of the past in four main ways. The addition of artificial intelligence (AI) will be enabled and enhanced by data supplied by the Internet of Things (IoT). This will give them greater autonomy to operate without human intervention, and as electronics shrink, they will gain even greater precision and agility to carry out delicate and intricate tasks. This is not likely to be a gradual change – we can expect rapid progress over the next decade.

For instance, a recent report by ABI Research suggests that AI will revolutionise the manufacturing sector – and in innovative manufacturers it is already delivering significant gains for product development (via generative design); inventory management (via production forecasting); and production (via machine vision, defect inspection, production optimisation and predictive maintenance).

By 2024 we can expect the number of installed AI-enabled devices in manufacturing to reach over 15 million, an annual growth rate of 64.8% from 2019.

What this means for electronic manufacturing

In the electronic manufacturing industry printed circuit boards (PCBs) are almost exclusively manufactured by pick-and-place robots, typically with SCARA manipulators and, as electronic components get smaller, the need for smarter, more precise robots will only increase.

In relation to PCB production, robots can place hundreds of thousands of components per hour, far out-performing a human in terms of speed, accuracy and reliability.

However, robots bring much more to the table than an ability to work hard. They can quickly and accurately check all the components required, regardless of size, to ensure they match the required spec and are placed accurately.

As IoT sensors become ever-more prevalent in electronic manufacturing, the benefits of robots really begin to stack up.

Using data from connected, always-on devices, robots can respond to situations in real-time. Machines become not only faster and more precise, but also smarter and more aware. Robots will automatically speed up or slow down based on information from other parts of the manufacturing process or the timings needed for small-batch production cycles.

The future of EMS providers lies in robotics, AI and the IoT. It will deliver quality, consistency and value.

What this means for medical OEMs

Bill Gates has commented that: “Information technology and medical technology are the things that will be very different 20 years from now than they are today.”
We’d add robots into this heady mix, too.

In many ways the future is already here – and, given predicted human resource shortages, it has arrived just in time.

  • The WHO’s Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030 predicts a human resources shortage of nearly ten million physicians, nurses and midwives by the end of the 2020s.
  • The EU-funded EDEN2020 is developing an enhanced delivery ecosystem for neurosurgery that is based on the existing Programmable Bevel-tip Needle (PBN), a flexible needle that can advance through the brain with remarkably little tissue damage.
  • Professor Shailesh Shrikhande in Mumbai and Hitesh Patel in London collaborated in avatar form on bowel cancer surgery in 2007.

There is an immense demand for robotics in healthcare and a human resource deficit is just one reason why there is an increasing need for ‘surgeon robots’ that can perform a complicated surgery with minimal supervision.

And for robots that can collect blood samples, offer patient care such as lifting and diagnose quickly and accurately. This was recently confirmed in the UK by the Topol Review - a publication led by cardiologist, geneticist, and digital medicine researcher Dr Eric Topol, and produced by HEE, which explores how to prepare the healthcare workforce, through education and training, to deliver the digital future.

This report foresees a digital future for the NHS, focussing strongly on the themes of genomics, digital medicine, AI and robotics. It makes clear that the adoption of new technologies will enable time-poor staff to care.

Telemedicine, smartphone apps, sensors, wearables, automated image interpretation and interventional and rehabilitative robotics are all among the top ten digital healthcare technologies that are projected to impact on the NHS workforce from 2020 to 2040.

Robotic arms in surgery are already used by the NHS, but further refinements look set to make these even more precise.

The potential benefits include:

  • More accurate procedures
  • Less invasive surgery
  • Shorter recovery times
  • Improved patient outcomes

However, will we see in the 2020s robots equipped with artificial intelligence, actually performing surgery, or helping care for the elderly at home or even AI diagnosing patients by smartphone without the involvement of a GP?

These things may not come to pass so soon, but its where a lot of R&D is certainly heading.

Squaring the circle

Surgery requires devices that are smaller, more compact and more responsive. We have already seen how complex robotics in manufacturing can not only enable this, but also verify that tiny components are exactly as stated on the BoM.

Personalisation and prototyping

The medical market increasingly demands faster delivery of more personalised equipment. Effective prototyping is important to many solutions because designers typically must try various component options before settling on the one that best suits the application.

This is where advanced modelling technology, such as 3D metal-based printers, simulation software and the use of AI-enabled robotics can give designers more flexibility and greater speed.

Customisation – and increasingly personalisation – of patient-specific devices will require high quality, high mix production that is perfectly suited to the application of IoT tech, machine learning and automation. It allows your EMS partner to easily switch from high-speed and high-volume production to agile systems that can seamlessly alter manufacturing product types without the need to stop the line.

Robots and data-fuelled devices

We’ve discussed how the IoT is already enabling smarter medical electronic device by providing a pathway for the efficient production of increasingly complex products, while capturing and analysing data flows to assist with regulatory compliance and efficiency gains.

The future of medical motor control devices will also inevitably be greatly enhanced and furthered by the application of IoT. Prosthetics will collect and relay data helping patients and doctors to monitor performance. And, just as on the factory floor, other devices can send warnings if components – or indicators of health – are under-performing.

2020s: the robotic decade

So, robots are already transforming electronic manufacturing and healthcare. We’ll end by going back to the beginning for a taste of what the future holds.

In the beginning there was Adam and Eve – robots equipped with AI in residence at the University of Cambridge. Their ability to perform repetitive tasks quickly, 24/7, and at relatively low cost, makes them particularly useful in early-stage drug design – they can test more than 10,000 compounds a day.

In 2009 Adam became the first robot to make a scientific discovery when he ran and interpreted experiments on the genomics of baker’s yeast. In 2015 Eve went one step further. She discovered that a compound with anti-cancer properties may also be useful in fighting malaria.

The University of Cambridge’s Steve Oliver said: “[Eve’s artificial intelligence] reduces the costs, uncertainty, and time involved in drug screening, and has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide.”

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