At a vast greenhouse in the central Danish city of Odense, a squad of robots move thin plastic pots of herbs for shipping without even putting a dent in them. For moviegoers used to seeing humanoid machines in action, that might not seem special — but in truth, it’s a remarkable feat.
Robots until recently have been limited to precise, preprogrammed and repetitive heavy-duty jobs like automotive manufacturing.
Yet at the Rosborg Food greenhouse, the OnRobot A/S devices adjust on the fly. One pot might be slightly out of position. The next might be a little heavy.
Robots that can see, learn and grip different items are advancing quickly into the retail,
food-and-beverage and consumer-packaged-good industries. While deliveries of robots to the US auto industry fell 12 percent last year, shipments to food and consumer-product companies soared 48 percent.
“The technology is going so fast now, that in two or three years” says Johnny Albertsen, Rosborg Food Holding A/S ’s chief executive officer, “you can make the robot do almost anything.”
The number of jobs lost to automation is difficult to calculate, in part because one lost position often creates several others in new industries. But almost 40 percent of US workers are in fields — retail and food service, for example — that will lose jobs to automation by 2030, according to a McKinsey report.
“It’s slower than a human, but it does not take pee breaks. It does not go to lunch.”
And robots are needed in many industries as companies struggle to find workers.
Unfilled positions in the category that includes warehousing jumped in April to a record since at least 2001, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Albertsen expects that improvements in gripping abilities soon will allow robots to pull tender plants from their containers. He plans to expand his crew with more automatons, which pay back the investment in about 18 months.
A single setup like the one Rosborg uses typically costs about $70,000, which includes the robot, the OnRobot gripper at the end of the robot’s arm and installation.
The grippers and the machine’s ability to see are key. Most heavy industrial robots still operate blindly and must be surrounded by cages to keep humans out of harm’s way.
Any variation, such as handling objects with different sizes or textures, weren’t possible. Now grippers that emulate a gecko’s sticky feet, or use soft polymers that expand to apply just the right amount of pressure, allow robots to take on new, more-nuanced tasks.
Cameras let the devices see an object. Artificial intelligence helps them determine the best way to grab it. AI, through which a machine improve its own performance, will prove key for robots to perform tasks such as folding laundry that are simple for humans but difficult for machines.
At Capacity LLC’s fulfillment center in New Jersey, workers had been tediously scanning items from such companies as cosmetics maker Glossier Inc. and shoe retailer Stadium Goods LLC, then placing each product into one of 16 cubbyholes. The task now is done by a robot arm terminating in three phalanges and an air-driven suction cup in the middle.