It has been just over 100 years since the term “robot” entered our lexicon. As many of you probably know, the word was first used in the 1920 theatrical production, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. He credited his brother Josef for the term, which was based on the Slavic word robota, meaning “forced laborer.”
In the play, robots are soulless, humanlike artificial factory workers created from synthetic organic materials—more like the robots in HBO’s “Westworld” than the industrial variety we know and love. This slave robot class created leisure time for their masters and allowed products to be manufactured at one-fifth the cost of those made by humans. Definitely distant science fiction then. Still quite a bit out there now, but somewhat closer—minus, of course, the synthetic organic materials part.
Also unlike the play, today’s robots have not necessarily created more leisure time in our factories and DCs, but they have certainly helped them become more productive. They have not necessarily replaced human workers but, rather, have augmented the work that people do, assuming the mundane and repetitive tasks that humans are increasingly reluctant to perform. Figures released in January by the Robotic Industries Association and the Association for Advancing Automation showed that even with the recession, robot sales in North America rose to more than $1.5 billion in 2020, 3.5% above 2019 figures
More than ever, robots are coming into their own. And for the first time, non-automotive robot orders surpassed those in the long-dominant automotive sector.
The pandemic has driven home the importance of DC automation during times when a regular labor force isn’t readily available. Robots kept working, keeping productivity high and essential products moving.
Robots have also demonstrated their ability to collaborate with human co-workers. They lift heavy loads and bring products directly to the humans, reducing travel time and fatigue while assuring speed and accuracy. Their use also promotes social distancing as it allows workers to spread out. It doesn’t matter how many robots bunch up in one work area. They don’t even need to wear masks on the job.
Robots are here to stay and will continue to find new applications in distribution and logistics operations.
And in case you’re wondering how the play R.U.R. ends, the humanoid robots, which have been given the power to reason, rebel against their human masters and pretty much wipe everyone out. I don’t think we have to worry about that happening with our facility robots, at least not anytime soon. Just be sure to treat them with kindness and respect.