Aims and objectives
IRaaS aims to:
- Minimise the effort of deploying and repurposing multi-robot automation systems and maximise their collaboration capability to rapidly respond to internal and external changes.
- Significantly reduce the effort required to deploy, redeploy and changeover robot services for different workplaces and products; from days to just minutes.
- Enable mixed human-robot teams to safely carry out complex collaborative tasks together with an efficiency and quality exceeding those of monolithic dedicated systems.
- Improve the contextual awareness of robotic systems in detecting people, objects, and key features in real-time (>50Hz) with sub-millimetre accuracy.
- Improve the responsiveness (time to respond to changes) and resilience (time to recover from disturbances; impact of disturbance) of manufacturing systems by 20 to 30%.
Covid-19 has highlighted how recent large-scale disruptions can de-stabilise workforces and damage productivity. Automation will have a key role in safeguarding UK manufacturing. More responsive automation will provide better adaptability to both changing consumer needs and resource availability, maintaining the viability of onshore production, protecting jobs, and securing UK supply chains. Despite these benefits, the upfront cost of automated systems is a barrier for adoption. Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) is an emerging business model where robots are provided on-loan, with much of the operating responsibility (programming, monitoring and maintenance) undertaken by the RaaS provider. This makes adoption of automation more viable for SMEs and for manufacturers working in dynamic markets. However, RaaS has primarily seen adoption in logistics and warehouse applications where robots are easiest to deploy. By comparison, manufacturing equipment is highly specialised and integrated to enable high throughput and efficiency. This results in long commissioning times, high investment levels and the long-term burden of maintaining complicated bespoke equipment, all of which make RaaS more challenging. For IRaaS to be achievable it must be both affordable, capable, and sustainable. This is most easily achieved by replacing dedicated and static industrial robots with flexible, low cost robots that are simple to deploy and repurpose, while collaborating to achieve the same goals.
The IRaaS model will allow manufacturers to quickly respond to meet the demands of changing markets, dynamically organise work to maximise their productivity, and be less exposed to any sudden shocks and system failures. This will augment the capability of their skilled human workforce by responding to human-defined production needs. Key benefits inherent to product service systems include: from a reliability perspective, the system will be resilient as malfunctioning robots can easily be replaced; from a financial perspective, the model will remove the need for large capital investment by enabling subscription based services; and from an environmental perspective, it will enable sustainable manufacturing concepts such as repair, re-use and remanufacture, eliminating the waste and cost of decommissioning monolithic automation equipment.
National Importance & Contribution to Knowledge
There is a strategic national need to enable responsive and resilient manufacturing and, through this, to protect and increase UK productivity. Automation would empower manufacturers to respond effectively to disruption and changes in demand, but UK uptake has been poor, particularly among SMEs. The UK only has 33 robots per 10,000 people employed, compared to 93 in the US and 170 in Germany. The transformative impact of robotics would bring an estimated £187.7 BN value for industry. This project will address poor uptake by focusing on key technology challenges, which, if resolved, would make IRaaS viable for significantly more manufacturers, including SMEs.
The key deliverable of an IRaaS reference architecture would create a unique UK capability and would add substantially to the field of robotics and autonomous systems in manufacturing. Minimising both deployment effort and skill required will lower the barriers for companies, especially SMEs, to uplift their workforce while retaining essential product and process knowhow. UK automation technology providers will benefit from early entry into a high growth sector ($217 million to nearly $34 billion in 2026), creating the opportunity to establish a new vibrant ecosystem of UK IRaaS providers.