Robots in factory

How breakthroughs in robotics are levelling up the productivity and safety of industrial workforces

We interview robotics expert Berry Mulder to explore the future of robotics in industrial businesses – and how robots will soon become our digital colleagues.

Key Takeaways

  • Icon representing three elements

    Industrial businesses must make their way through three stages on their robotics journey – ‘tools for tasks’, ‘autonomous solutions’ and ‘digital colleagues’

  • Icon with Tools

    Many industries are still in the ‘tools for tasks’ stage of robotics, where equipment emulates a singular, human action.

  • Colleagues icon

    There are many practical industrial applications for AI – including helping farmers to improve yields and driving quality in manufacturing.

  • Icon with stop hand indicating misconceptions

    Key misconceptions include an underestimation of adoption difficulty, and the idea that robotics will replace human jobs.

  • Icon with journey and tick

    With an open-minded and learner-focused approach, leaders can use robotics to introduce safety, cost and efficiency benefits.

Profile picture of Berry Mulder, Robotics Centre of Expertise Leader, Shell Projects & Technology

Berry Mulder Bio

Berry Mulder is a robotics expert whose professional purpose lies in using technology to improve the execution of business processes – with a particular focus on helping teams integrate robotics solutions for the purpose of adding entrepreneurial edge and business value.
At Shell, Berry leads the Robotics Centre of Expertise – a group of industry experts whose main role is to incentivise and inspire Shell colleagues to consider how robotics can improve their own lines of business, whether through process automation, safety improvements, cost savings or carbon footprint reductions.

Find out more about Robotics in Shell

Phasing in the concept of a “digital colleague”

Throughout history, humans have created and adopted machines to help them work – driven by a need to achieve more in less time. This change is often met with fear that, eventually, people will no longer be needed in the workplace.

When it comes to robots ‘taking over’ the workplace, the World Economic Forum forecasts that 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in labour division between humans and machines.1 But it’s important to highlight the difference between ‘replacing’ and ‘displacing’ a workforce.

In fact, many within the field of robotics would suggest that, only once there is a widespread understanding of how robotics and human employees can best coexist, will industry be able to get the most from their mechanical counterparts.

But before we get to that point, there are various robotics phases that industry – and society – has yet to progress through, building on the 2.7 million industrial robots operating in factories worldwide in 2020.2

Phase 1: Tools for tasks

As Berry Mulder, who leads the Robotics Centre of Expertise at Shell, puts it: “this is still the learning phase. It’s still the phase that we call ‘tools for tasks’, where a painting robot used to coat an industrial tank – for example – is still simply replicating what we’ve been doing as humans for 1,000 years or more.

While there is still an achievement, and worth, to be found in a robot reproducing a singular motion – due to the potential for cost, consistency, quality and safety improvements – experts like Berry are clear on the additional applications and benefits that industries are yet to fully unlock.

Phase 2: Autonomous Solutions

In the second phase, automation would take the process further, enabling a business to swiftly transition from one painting robot, manned by an individual driver, to teams of five or six robots that could complete the task both unsupervised and more quickly.

Phase 3: Digital Colleagues

Finally, by combining robotics with artificial intelligence (AI) and effective data integration, a closed-loop interaction can be achieved. In practice, this means a fleet could be instructed to paint a particular area by a corresponding inspection robot, which likewise, could be put into action when the site’s surveillance drone observes an area of corrosion in need of repair.

This final, third phase would see the traditional workforce operating alongside true “digital colleagues” – collaborative robots (or “cobots”) which are set to represent 34% of the entire industrial robot market by 2025.3 However, standing in the way of this progress are several longstanding misconceptions that are still proving difficult to dispel.

Robotics is not about stealing jobs or replacing people. It’s about enhancing where people are not at their best, and letting those people upskill to things that humans are better at.

Berry Mulder, Robotics Centre of Expertise Leader, Shell Projects & Technology

Busting the myths around industrial robotics

Engineer using robotic metrology to measure jet engine in robotics research facility

Myth 1: Robotics integration is quick and easy

The first of these myths is the perception that integrating robotics into the workplace is a simple process. This notion is largely the product of a wider misunderstanding of the nuances between household robots and industrial robots; but just because a robotic vacuum cleaner is easily installed to clean your home’s floor, that doesn’t necessarily mean deploying a robotic solution to perform factory-based tasks is equally straightforward.

One of the main reasons for this is the presence of external factors. Many industrial robots are designed to perform tasks either outside, where conditions can be unpredictable, or in complex indoor settings, where they are expected to operate 24/7.

These constraints obviously have ramifications for design – after all, even if an industrial robot is developed to survey an outdoor facility, if that happens to be in an oil and gas facility, then it must be built to be explosive-safe.

That being said, falling equipment prices are making many types of robotic capabilities more accessible. For example, robot arm prices have dropped 50% in the last decade4, while the cost of IoT sensors has fallen by nearly 200% to an average of $0.44.5

Automated vegetable farming

Myth 2: Robots are set to replace human workforces

The second myth is that industrial robots and increased automation will lead to job losses. However, as Berry insists: “this is not about stealing jobs or replacing people. It’s about enhancing where people are not at their best, and letting those people upskill to things that humans are better at.”

Berry gives the first-hand example of an operations supervisor who brought his whole team together – both younger and older employees – in their facility one day and pointed to their new workplace robot. The supervisor then explained that embracing these changes would give them the new needed skills for their jobs, rather than simply ignoring or rejecting a new way of working.

It’s the dialogue of change that you need to facilitate as a CEO. What’s the next generation skill pool that you need to tap into for your business goals, for example? And in this case, it just happens to be a hybrid model, with ‘man’ and machine together

Berry Mulder, Robotics Centre of Expertise Leader, Shell Projects & Technology

Such interactions confirm the presiding feeling within the robotics field that industries must be open to embracing and enacting a mentality shift regarding these technologies. Only then can businesses start to reap the many benefits that robotics offers.

Tangible actions and practical applications for business leaders

So, what exactly are the benefits available to forward-thinking business leaders? Well, that all depends on the approach taken, but robotics can effectively unlock improvements in almost every area of business, from safety and sustainability to cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

For Berry, a winning approach will always be rooted in open-mindedness and a learning mindset: “It’s a dialogue of change that you need to facilitate as a CEO. What’s the next generation skill pool that you need to tap into for your business goals, for example? And in this case, it just happens to be a hybrid model, with ‘man’ and machine together.”

With the right mentality in tow, the next step is to take practical actions. First by identifying eager staff, and then letting them identify where robotics can be integrated to make a meaningful impact.

We’re starting to see a lot more interaction between hardware suppliers and software providers for example, and in turn, even competitors are realising that they can learn faster, together, which is fantastic.

Berry Mulder, Robotics Centre of Expertise Leader, Shell Projects & Technology

For example, as safety is a priority, then perhaps the situation calls for surveillance drones that can either observe facilities remotely or that can be embedded on existing assets to augment an employee’s existing capabilities.

Whereas, emission- or leak-detection robots can combine these safety functions with added sustainability benefits, by helping to monitor a facility and detect anomalies before they become a significant issue, such as energy, material wastage or downtime.

And then efficiency and productivity come into play thanks to logistics or task-based robotics that can help streamline the 50% of tasks that are automatable using current technology, whether that’s cleaning, painting, inspecting or moving equipment.6

Ultimately, just as experts envision a future of robotic ecosystems helping business to automate and optimise industrial processes, Berry sees collaboration as an equally important part of decision makers’ toolkits: “we’re starting to see a lot more interaction between hardware suppliers and software providers for example, and in turn, even competitors are realising that they can learn faster, together, which is fantastic.”

Why leaders should embrace, encourage and empower robotics usage

Ipad taking picture of robots in factory

And so, robotics continues to have an increasingly noticeable impact on the landscape of most industrial settings. But just how big this impact will be on each individual business depends on the extent to which its leaders embrace and encourage robotics usage.

“One major thing I’ve learnt over the last few years,” explains Berry, “is that it’s all about teaching and empowering the younger generation of the workforce. Get them involved – start small, aim big, and be open about your business goals. And then challenge your company experts to utilize their new digital tools in pursuit of those goals.”

Not only will this see a shift in the division of labour between man and machine, it’ll help to drive a generational change in the human side of a workforce – especially in industrial businesses where attracting young talent can be a challenge.

There is an exciting journey ahead. Industry has only just started tapping into the potential of robotics, in relative terms. And with 88% of worldwide businesses anticipating an increase in robotics investment, arguably, the best is yet to come.7

1 World Economic Forum. “The Future of Jobs Report 2020”. weforum.org. (accessed 04 November 2021).

2 International Federation of Robotics. “IFR presents World Robotics Report 2020.” IFR.org. 24 September, 2020. (accessed 01 November, 2021).

3 Robotic Industrial Association. “Global Collaborative Robots (Cobots) Market, 2020-2030.” PR Newswire. 08 October, 2020. (accessed 01 November, 2021).

4 Tuttle, Luke and Ben Gibbs. “Coronavirus: Another Reason to Automate.” Ready Robotics. (accessed 01 November, 2021).

5 Microsoft Dynamics 365. “2019 Manufacturing Trends Report.” Microsoft. 2019. (accessed 01 November, 2021).

6 Michael Coyne. “Winning in automation requires a focus on humans.” McKinsey & Company. 05 December, 2019. (accessed 01 November, 2021).

7 Lea Bolz. “Growth dynamics in industrial robotics.” McKinsey & Company. 15 July, 2019. (accessed 01 November, 2021).

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