Data Centers of the Future: Ushering in the Rise of Automation and Robotics


Robotics and automation have been a winning combination for scaling up many industries.

We’ve seen data center operators also increasingly adopting this approach, driven by a need to make their IT infrastructures more robust and less costly. Deploying robotics to automate business processes can also help lower data centers’ carbon footprint and infrastructure complexity.

According to AFCOM’s 2021 State of the Data Center report, 16% of the respondents are already leveraging robotics and autonomous systems, while 35% are planning to deploy these solutions within the next three years.
This points towards a greater realization among industry players of the benefits in deploying more intelligent, autonomous systems for smaller tasks, and distributed environments.
To be fair, data centers had started their digital transformation journey about a decade back, paving the way for the proliferation of environmental sensors in racks and servers. As a result, organizations have been able to monitor critical aspects of their infrastructure by using software.

However, a decade and an ongoing pandemic later, companies are ramping up their digitization efforts, driving the demand for data center agility and optimization in an increasingly automated world to an all-time high.
In this New Normal, data center workers now work remotely to ensure better social distancing. With fewer staff on the ground and less teamwork at play, data center operators have had to expedite their pursuit of greater productivity and efficiency.
On the software side, several operators have successfully incorporated Artificial Intelligence (AI) through Machine Learning into their operations, which have proven to be beneficial in areas such as energy efficiency whereby the amount of energy consumed for cooling can be lowered by up to 40%.

The next step is to look at hardware to further automate processes and operations, and this is where robotics comes into the picture.
Back in 2013, IBM piloted a hacked iRobot robot vacuum, mobilizing it throughout the data center to track the temperature and other critical data. Things have gotten a little more refined since then — dedicated robots are now being utilized in several hyper-scale data centers (which function similarly to warehouses and where most of the processes require the help of robots in navigating to specific locations to perform tasks).
Time (saving) machines

Sometimes, saving time means working around the clock, which is something no one aiming for work-life balance looks forward to. But with robotics, requests for changes can be executed at any time without errors or delays.

Moreover, with the help of robotics, delivery between shifts and inevitable re-prioritization of tasks can be avoided, while execution times can be reduced and become easy to predict.

Automating processes also empower the use of AI data, whereby corrective actions can be taken immediately based on predictions of when an asset may break down, thus preventing crippling outages.

While robots are regarded highly for their ability in taking over tasks that are too mundane or repetitive for human staff, the fact that they too can handle dangerous work involving heavy machinery and sharp objects as well as operate in high temperatures – in my opinion — is another major plus point.

Furthermore, robotics can help create a safer and more comfortable work environment for staff by virtue of working non-stop and speeding up production. This spares employees from overworking to meet intense pressure deadlines or impossible standards.
Co-workers, not a competition though the examples I’ve outlined in the earlier part of this article show what robotics can do in the absence of human workers, that doesn’t mean robots are meant to replace the current workforce. Instead, robotics free teams up so workers can explore other better ways to work.

The idea is for human staff to work alongside robots, supervising and maintaining their operations. Realistically, the more robots we need, the more people we will also require to build, maintain and repair those robots.

On this note, reskilling employees to work with robots will give them a sense of purpose and motivation in their position within the organization. Moreover, they will get the opportunity to develop a new set of technology and engineering-related skills.

If anything, data centers will need all the help they can get, with a workforce crunch predicted for the industry. Uptime Institute, according to its Global Data Center Staffing Forecast 2021-2025, expects a shortage of staff over the next few years amid the rising demand by cloud and colocation data centers.

Therefore, there is a need to start reimagining how the data center of the future should be built. Rather than just looking at having wider structures, robot-managed facilities make it possible to expand vertically, which is a plus for land-scarce markets such as Singapore. For context, Facebook has built an 11-story tall facility on the island city-state, pushing the boundaries of how a data center can look.

Having said that, the industry must first prepare and allow robots to work safely alongside humans in order to avoid damaging servers or end up as security risks instead of security guards.
At Schneider Electric, we provide assessment services and planning, ensuring all the domains of a data center are covered, extending protection into parts of the data center that could be vulnerable such as building, power, and HVAC systems.
Our EcoStruxure IT cloud-based data center management software comes with clear guidelines on data ownership, use, access, and portability: in a nutshell, our customers have control over where their data is stored, how it is securely accessed, and how it is managed.

To robotize or not to robotize?

As with any new emerging technology, deploying robotics require huge investments to develop the knowledge they need in order to perform their tasks in an effective manner. While they are able to perform repetitive tasks, specific training is still needed for robots to operate in a productive environment, such as a data center.

That training will pay itself off eventually, doing away with worries about rising labor costs or repetitive onboarding and training, especially for high-turnover jobs. In essence, businesses that adopt robotics as part of their strategy can extract its benefits including long-term return on investment (ROI), and as some may call it, return on innovation.

Another concern is the need for a cultural shift, bearing in mind that historically, technological innovation has led to the creation of new jobs and new approaches to tasks. Every major shift in technology has changed the way we live and work, but for organizations to fully realize the vision of greater and more effective digital transformation, and – in a larger picture — agility, then technologies need to be embraced.
Sure, all these might seem like a lot to consider and invest in up-front. But to prepare for the new future of work and excel in the New Digital Age, the rise in robotics begs one question: the robots are ready, but are you?