Coming off a record year for sales of robot orders and shipments, Jeff Burnstein, President of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3; Ann Arbor, MI), noted that “automation played a vital role in spurring economic growth in the North American manufacturing and services industries in 2016. We anticipate accelerated growth based on smarter, more connected and more collaborative robots in the coming years.”
According to a 2016 year-end report from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA; Ann Arbor, MI), orders for robots in 2016 spiked 61% in assembly applications, nearly double the number for the food and consumer goods industries (32%). Orders for spot welding applications increased 24%, according to RIA’s report. Topping demand by market, the automotive industry experienced another strong year, with orders growing 17% and shipments rising 25% relative to 2015.
So what does that mean for the American factory worker? Some have long seen robotics and automation as “job stealers.” According to a report from Deloitte, 13% of the 5.6 million manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2010 were due to international trade while 85% stemmed from productivity growth—machines replacing human workers.
Looked at another way, we might say that the skills gap forced manufacturers to implement more robotics. Rather than productivity growth being caused by machines replacing human workers and creating job losses, we might say that a lack of qualified human workers led to the implementation of robotic systems, which resulted in greater productivity. With a 4.4% unemployment rate reported for April, which translates into full employment, and lots of manufacturing jobs remaining unfilled, robots and automation systems will continue to be in big demand.
Robotics is not the culprit behind the losses in manufacturing jobs; rather, a lack of skilled workers is forcing more manufacturers to implement automation to maintain productivity. Still, robotics and automation has some newer workforce participants worried. A recent survey of millennials from Deloitte Global shows that many of them are asking whether robots will take their jobs someday. “While they recognize the benefits of automation in terms of productivity and economic growth, they also see it providing opportunities for value-added and creative activities or learning new skills,” said Cathy Engelbert, CEO at Deloitte.
Deloitte’s survey shows that 40% of millennials surveyed see automation posing a threat to their jobs; 44% believe there will be less demand for their skills; 51% believe they will have to retrain; and 53% see the workplace becoming more impersonal and less human. “That is news that should make every CEO sit up and take notice, given this generation’s use of social media,” said Engelbert.
Yet, that’s not the whole picture. Besides productivity and efficiency, robots have contributed to workplace health and safety. The RIA notes that robots used in assembly applications, spot welding and in the food and consumer goods industries have taken on routine functions requiring repetitive tasks like picking and placing parts, and handling and assembly, which contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome. Robots used in large-part molding operations, such as injection molded and thermoformed parts for vehicle manufacturing, do the heavy lifting so that workers are not at risk of back injuries, a common workplace complaint.
Collaborative robots, aka cobots, are often placed in areas where they work alongside human workers to get the job done in a safe and efficient manner. Kuka AG (Augsburg, Germany), a manufacturer of industrial robotic systems, says that in human-robot collaboration (HRC), the robot assists the human operator. “This means the machine does not replace the human, but complements his capabilities and relieves him of arduous tasks,” said Kuka’s white paper on this topic. “These can include overhead work, for example, or the lifting of heavy loads. Autonomous, collaborative robots are also used to supply production workstations, including Kuka’s own production facility.”
Kuka noted that in the “factory of the future” there will be no separation between automated and manual workstations. “Humans and robots collaborate optimally, without separation and without safety fencing,” said Kuka, which has developed the first robot that is approved for HRC: the Kuka LBR iiwa. It uses intelligent control technology, high-performance sensors and state-of-the-art software technologies to enable new collaborative solutions in production technology.
The Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc. provides automation products and solutions for a range of industries and applications including welding, assembly, coating, material handling and packaging. Recently the company introduced its new six-axis Human Collaborative (HC10) robot that works safely with, or in close proximity to, humans.
Injuries to human co-workers is something that concerns companies, but Yaskawa Motoman notes that dual torque sensors in all joints constantly monitor force to quickly react to contact with a human, something typically only found in more expensive systems. It is designed to eliminate operator pinch points while through-arm utilities hide cabling and increase safety by reducing the risks of snagging or interference with other equipment.
“Safety is of the utmost importance when robots and humans are working together in a shared workspace,” said Keith Vozel, Software Product Manager for Yaskawa Motoman, in a comment for PlasticsToday. “However, in addition to safety, these collaborative robots must be rigorous enough to take the beating of a factory environment.”
Vozel wrote in Yaskawa Motoman’s Y-blog, that cobots have additional benefits, particularly for small and medium sized businesses that may find the complexity of industrial robots challenging. Additionally, not every plant manager has the staff or budget to hire an integrator to program (and reprogram) a robot. Also, industrial robots require the working area to be safeguarded to prevent potential injury to humans, said Vozel.
Vozel noted that, depending on the application, “you can overcome the above challenges by hiring . . . a cobot. A cobot is relatively lightweight and designed to operate safely in close proximity to people. This can elminiate curtains or fencing through the use of sensors or force-limiting technology with the proper application and risk assessment. It’s also easily programmed through hand guiding, which allows a worker to move the cobot’s arm to each point in a job instead of typing commands into a pendant.” Vozel called collaborative robots a “way to future-proof your manufacturing process.”
Robots also offer a way for manufacturers to bring work back from low-cost countries, where the overall risks may be higher (even though the workforce is cheaper), to places like Europe and North America. While not every job will come back, automation does require a skilled and semi-skilled workforce, which means job opportunities.
Adidas, the sports shoe maker, announced last year that it will bring a small portion of its shoe manufacturing back to Germany from Asia, using robots to do the work that humans used to do. That plant, known as a high-tech Speedfactory, is one in which “intelligent, robotic technology will be utilized to manufacture the shoes. However, Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted told the Financial Times, while on his first trip to Asia, that automation has its limitations. One of those—which he said was the “biggest challenge” the shoe industry faces in automating manufacturing—is creating a robot that can put laces into the shoes. Currently only human hands can lace up a sneaker. Adidas will be putting another Speedfactory in Atlanta this year.
While manufacturing is buzzing with excitement about President Donald Trump’s push to get manufacturers to bring jobs back to the USA, we’re most likely looking at a whole new world by the time they get here. Like the Adidas Speedfactory, the factories of the near future will be filled with machinery and robotic systems powered by artificial intelligence, and many of the skills of yesterday won’t even be needed. Much of the factory equipment also will be outdated and will need to be replaced with automated systems in which some humans will work alongside robots.
Deloitte’s survey noted that most companies today (77%) are planning either to retrain people to use advanced technology or redesign jobs to better take advantage of human skills.
Many countries are already experiencing a worker shortage because of low birth rates and immigration controls, which is forcing the greater use of automation technology. In the United States, where thousands of baby boomers are retiring every day, automation technology will be a necessity. The younger generations are already primed to work in a digital world.
Deloitte’s Engelbert was quick to point out that “jobs are made up of many tasks. So the nature of existing jobs will change, and new careers will be created.” When Engelbert’s 15-year-old son expressed worry about job opportunities in the robotic age, she said that she told him, 'don’t worry—I’ve never met a machine with courage and empathy.' We’ll still need those in the new economy. To be sure, technology will change what we do. Tasks that are highly manual, routine and predictable will be automated.”
Except when it comes to lacing up shoes.