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The shortage of skilled workers is driving the development of robotics

AI-supported robots are becoming increasingly important in the logistics industry. But how can humans and machines work together effectively, and what technical and ethical limits must be taken into account when using machines?

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Global sales of service robots for professional use rose by 48% to a total of 158,000 units last year, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Companies are increasingly relying on service robots to counteract the shortage of personnel.

“The service robot industry is developing rapidly. The lack of skilled workers and the challenges in filling service positions are driving demand. The IFR has identified nearly 1,000 service robot providers worldwide that offer automated services,” emphasises Marina Bill, President of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

Leading transport and logistics

The largest market share is accounted for by mobile robot solutions in the areas of transport and logistics: more than half of all professional service robots are used to transport goods or goods. In 2022, sales in this segment increased by 44% to around 86,000 units sold.

Amid a drastic increase in demand, logistics companies have already invested heavily in robotics and automation. Sales of professional service robots for transporting goods or goods increased by 44% between 2021 and 2022.

“Robot manufacturers are increasingly integrating hardware with intelligent software to serve the specific automation needs of the warehouse and logistics industry. Robots equipped with artificial intelligence open up a wealth of new opportunities for this sector,” explains Bill.

The use of AI is primarily intended to help robots become familiar with variable and unpredictable situations. Thanks to AI software based on an experience-based learning process instead of rigid programming, robots can learn to grab and close various objects at high speed in a logistics center pack; they use optical systems to autonomously transport items around the factory and offer AI-driven interfaces that turn what was once a 90-minute maintenance task into a split-second adjustment.

“The combined use of a broad range of robotics and automation applications will play a critical role in addressing labour shortages and enabling future growth in this key industry,” emphasises Bill.

Human or machine

The international technology group Körber is also of the opinion that Robotik can counteract the shortage of skilled workers. Indeed, robots are already helping people in many areas, especially with defined, recurring tasks.

The possible uses are wide-ranging, from internal logistics to production.

“In internal logistics – for production and distribution alike – robots take on a wide range of tasks in the areas of transport, storage and handling. The transport of containers and pallets between functional areas or goods-to-person picking based on autonomous robots are typical examples,” says Michael Heidu, Product & Solution Manager at Körber’s Supply Chain business unit.

Does this mean that robots will soon replace humans? No, because there are still things that people can do better than machines. Robots often reach their limits, particularly when it comes to independently perceiving undefined environments and objects.

“Sensor technology has developed rapidly in recent years. When it comes to recognising and handling unknown / undefined objects, robots reach technical limits – a concrete example is the picking of individual parts. Here the properties of the parts are decisive as to whether automation is at all or economically possible, explains Heidu.

That’s why the direct comparison between man and machine is flawed. Meanwhile, one should ask how humans and machines can intelligently interact and work successfully hand in hand. Robotic solutions can be a great relief for human colleagues, especially when it comes to physical, difficult and monotonous work.

Ethical aspects should also not be ignored. New technologies should, above all, expand human abilities, but not lead to a paternalism of people.

“AI as part of the robot-based solution should of course comply with ethical principles. The key here is to avoid paternalism over people through AI – people should retain decision-making authority,” says Heidu.