"Robots work and people rule," was one of the good quotes from Erik Nieves from Plus One Robots at SXSW this year. I found it brilliant as it gives a clear vision of the hierarchy between humans and robots. And, whether we believe that robots are taking over or not, they're already here and are probably here to stay. Let’s make them our best friends so that we can be better at being humans.
E-commerce is growing
A compelling case for robots is within logistics. In a world of retail, more and more purchases happen online. In the US they expect e-commerce to represent about 39% of their revenue by 2030. Numbers from Alibaba’s Singles Day in 2018, showed that they had a revenue of US $ 30.8 Billion, and that they delivered 100 million parcels in 2,6 day. Imagine the number of people it takes to o get the logistics right!
Robots have limitations
Repetitive and routine based tasks like picking and packing goods in the supply chain are perfect for robots. But the robots meet challenges on their way and grasping the products are their biggest problem. Packaging comes in all different shapes and sizes, and for FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) packagings are designed to look good on the store shelves, and for selling the products to consumers when they’re making their purchase decision. They're not necessarily designed to be handled by robots.
How to create robot-friendly design
This presents designers with at least two interesting design challenges. One is how to replicate the excellence of humans by having two hands and a brain to coordinate them so that they can more easily grasp any object, whatever shape and finishing the packaging has. The second, which might be the lower hanging fruit, is how to design robot-friendly designed packaging, so it’s easier for robots to grasp?
As designers, we’re trained to understand and empathise with people. Is it different to understand robots compared to humans? Empathy is about understanding the motivation, drivers, and limitations of whom you design for. In that sense, robots are much easier to understand than humans. But designing for robots is also about understanding their context, and hence the co-workers and work environment. So, designing for robots is about designing for interactions in the mega-structure that a complex supply chain is.
Fixing the service or fixing the robot?
So, what are the key takeaways for us designers when designing for services or processes were robots are a part of the journey?
First, we need to have empathy with both robots and their peeps. Human learning is, still, better than machine learning. Hence, we need to understand the robots, both with their opportunities and their limitations.
When designing for people, our perspective is that we create solutions that serve people, we don't “fix” people. When designing for robots, they are a part of the solution, so sometimes we can fix the robots if that is the smarter thing to do.
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