Friday Focus: How Robots Are Co-Collaborators for a Better Manufacturing Future

August 2, 2013

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Robotics will play a major role in the future of U.S. manufacturing, from job creation to productivity enhancement, to greater collaboration with workers on shop floors, despite a misconception that robots will strip away jobs. At a recent congressional caucus event in Washington, D.C., the nation’s top automation experts tackled these points and emphasized how business leaders can use robotics to their advantage.

The July 31 event, titled “Harnessing New Robotics Technologies for Job Creation,” brought together science and business minds with one central message: Robots are among the nation’s top co-collaborators, and even more, they will create an estimated 1-2 million jobs between 2017 and 2020. IMT Career Journal spoke with these experts to find out how this will occur.

Despite what the harshest critics say, robots are not the real threat to U.S. manufacturing jobs, the experts contend. Instead, the problem is the inability to remain globally competitive, the failure to keep up with the pace of consumer demand, and outsourcing, according to Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), who spoke with IMT Career Journal.

“I've been in this industry for over 30 years,” he said. “When I got involved in the late 70s, early 80s, what they were saying then was that robots were going to be the next industrial revolution, and there weren’t going to be any jobs. There was a big concern at that time, union resistance and all that. Yet it went away because I think even the unions realized that this was a way to preserve jobs, and this was a way to become competitive.”

Burnstein notes that the issue of robotics as a threat to jobs is mostly prevalent in the U.S. “This issue is not discussed very much internationally, and I travel and talk to my counterparts all over the world,” he said. “It is not discussed, except in the U.S. and is always, in my opinion, driven by somebody who writes a study that gets picked up by the media, or those who write a high-profile article, and then the discussion picks up again.”

He also emphasized that the biggest critics who point to robotic-related job loss should look closer at the most telling statistic: During the time when the nation lost the most manufacturing jobs—over 6 million between 2001 and 2009—robot sales actually dipped.

"I estimate that each robot employs maybe two people. In the U.S., there might have been 200,000 robots that were sold during this [recession] period. [Hypothetically]that’s 400,000 jobs that would have been lost in manufacturing. We lost millions."

“In terms of robots, for every robot you see, someone had to build it, design it, program it, maintain it, apply it, and integrate it. The robot industry itself generates a lot of jobs,” he said.

How Will Industry Shift with Rising Robotics?

According to Mitchell Weiss, chief operating officer at Seegrid, the maker of vision-guided automated guided vehicles and robotic industrial trucks, there was one question posed to him and his colleagues at the caucus that reflected the cautious attitude with robotics.

“Someone asked: ‘What about that warehouse worker at Amazon who’s taking orders? Aren’t you building stuff that’s going to take his job away?’ My response to that was, you can’t get enough people to work in warehouses right now, it’s a huge, growing part of [Amazon’s] business,” Weiss said. “And the other problem is, the turnover rates in that business are huge. If you just ask people to lug a box from A to B, they are not going to keep the job long. But you tell them to coordinate the activities of five machines to get shipments out the door, they’re going to have some skills, they’re going to learn some things, they’re going to get a job out of that deal.”

Dr. David Bourne, principle system scientist at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, gave the caucus audience a different point of view of how robots and humans can work together. “I showed that it’s possible to divide tasks between humans and robots depending what they are best at,” he explained. While humans are good at materials handling operations, robots have the capability for measurement precision, for example.

“If humans and robots work collaboratively as a team, they work much faster and more effectively, because it turns out robots really can’t do things that people are able do so much better,” Bourne said. “One interesting point is that people do things that robots can’t do so much better.”

What the U.S. Can Learn from the Competition, Education

Globally, European countries are among the best in using human-automation collaboration, and incorporating robotics as a safety measure, according to Weiss.

“It’s interesting, when I talk to German companies, they are using automation mostly from an ergonomics and quality perspective,” he noted. “You see guys lifting crankshafts using an assist. They are having the robots lift the crankshaft, because they don’t want a person lifting a 10-pound part. It’s a very steady cooperative kind of pace.”

Rising in the ranks of global competitors requires the right type of talent, and while the experts agree that the country needs to graduate more workers with the right sets of skills to keep up with automation, they also note that everyone—from students to businesses leaders–should realize that valuable workers are recruited from all types of institutions.

“There’s a huge tendency in the country to underplay people’s skills if they’re not college educated or in white- collar jobs,” Weiss emphasized. “Both my kids graduated [from voc-tech schools], and both went on to get their college degrees. One is in aerospace engineering. It’s just a different way of learning; it doesn’t mean those people don’t have skills.”

Bourne notes that most students see more allure in MBAs versus two-year schools. "It is appropriate for community colleges to teach the practical aspects of automation, because not everyone goes on to four-years or MBAs," he noted.

“We hire all of our service guys out of the local tech school," said Weiss. “They go on to learn about robots, and there’s a lot to learn. We don’t have them designing the stuff, but they sure do contribute to the business.”

Weiss foresees robotics to serve a collaborative and supportive industrial role. “I think that in our customers, what we are going to see, whether it’s a manufacturing customer or warehousing customer, instead of giving the guy grunt work to do, we’ll give him the coordination of the robot to do,” he said.

He calls on Congress for the proper funding to support the growing industry. "One of the places where the U.S. has a problem competing with the rest of the world is in the cost of capital, because we are not subsidized by our government."

“We do have a higher cost of capital, and we do have higher taxes than some of those competitive countries. We need to make more efficient use of the physical plant resource, and that’s one of the things that you get out of automating, whether it’s warehouses, or hospital rooms, or factories,” he said.

For more on the Harnessing New Robotics Technologies for Job Creation event, see the presentations here.

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