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The ‘cobots’ are coming. Is your IT team ready?

Cindy Waxer | May 17, 2017
These collaborative robots work alongside human employees, sending productivity sky-high. But IT teams must be prepared to take on complex programming, deal with connectivity issues and get used to sharing work space with 6-foot-tall machines.

Says Kara: "Now we're starting to get these huge workflows within work cells where all of the devices are interconnected and talking to each other."

Doyle points to cobot manufacturer FANUC and its Intelligent Edge Link and Drive (FIELD) system as another gateway to Industry 4.0 — tech parlance for a combination of digital transformations, including advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, sensors, IoT and data capture, that will revolutionize global manufacturing operations.

As more and more companies make use of tools such as FANUC, Kara says, "devices will not only generate data, but they'll actually interact with other devices. It's a really cool time; we're moving towards the goal of Industry 4.0."


Present matters

For now, though, IT leaders are facing more immediate issues, namely security risks. Consider, for example, surgical robots. Surgical robots are increasingly being used to perform complex medical procedures, from removing gall bladders to stitching internal tissue. But in 2015, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle managed to hijack a telesurgery robot, deleting and changing the order of commands it was receiving. The controlled experiment, conducted over a public network, highlights the increasing risks of hacking and other types of malicious attacks as bots achieve greater connectivity.

And then there's the overall impact of robots on an IT environment. "When a company wants to bring in mobile robots, one of the biggest challenges IT leaders face is with IT infrastructure," says Doyle. "That's because the robot might be on a totally separate system." For this reason, Doyle says, "it's really important to ensure that the IT department and CIO are directly engaged in discussions from the beginning." By predetermining a cobot's connectivity to other devices, and the amount of data it will produce, companies can significantly reduce integration headaches.

Standardization is also a top priority for IT leaders with an interest in cobots. Take, for example, the OPC Foundation, whose mandate is to help enterprises maintain interoperability in their manufacturing and automation assets. Currently, the OPC Foundation is working on developing an industrial standard that will support interoperability among a wide range of manufacturing processes and equipment. By doing so, the organization hopes to ease data integration between machines and robots.

"It's very important for organizations like the OPC Foundation to ensure that standards exist," says Doyle. "If not, the biggest vendors are going to establish their own standards."


From server rooms to factory floors

As industry consortiums and vendors hammer out new standards, IT leaders are rewriting their own playbooks. For instance, Hager recalls how his role at Praxis changed dramatically when the company purchased its first Baxter cobot. "[As IT leaders], we handle data collection and reporting and traditional IT jobs but we don't necessarily get out there on the factory floor," he says. "So [when we introduced Baxter], it was a transition from being in the backroom and managing IT operations to getting out on the floor and helping with production."


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