Lending hand: mechanical engineer Jesse Rochelle works with Baxter at the Stenner Pumps factory in Jacksonville, Florida © FT

What is an industrial robot?

Many automated tasks in factories are performed by robotic arms programmed to complete repetitive and sometimes dangerous tasks.

A growing number of factories are also buying self-driving freight carriers and autonomous forklift trucks to reduce manpower.

Most industrial robots operate at a distance from their co-workers, sometimes in cages for safety reasons, but a new generation of humanoid robots — known as cobots — is being developed to work alongside humans.

The $25,000 Baxter robot, for instance (seen in the picture above with its human co-worker at a factory in Florida), is designed to perform simple tasks such as packing and loading and has a screen with an animated face that frowns when there is a problem.

What can they do well?

Three-quarters of all industrial robots operate in four sectors: computers and electronic goods, home appliances and components, transportation equipment, and machinery. That’s partly because automation makes financial sense in these industries and partly because of the limited nature of the existing technology.

Industrial robots are usually fixed in a single location and are adept at performing uniform tasks with objects that are stationary or that move at a predictable speed.

Robots can work more quickly than humans, with a high degree of consistency and precision, and do not need breaks to sleep or eat, of course.

What can’t they do well?

Other than a few cutting-edge “intelligent” robots, most of these machines have to be preprogrammed for each specific task on the production line.

Precision can be a challenge too. Robots have no problem placing electronic components on to a flat circuit board, for instance, but struggle to assemble a car battery, which has many small parts that must be installed at odd angles.

Very labour-intensive tasks such as sewing garments and shoemaking have seen minimal automation so far. But that is starting to change, with Adidas opening a robot-dominated shoe factory in Germany this year.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.