It’s a dirty job, but somebody's got do it. Why not a cobot?

The market for collaborative robots is booming: It is expected to surpass the $10 billion mark by 2025, expanding at a 44.5%  compound annual growth rate, according to a recent study by market research group Grand View Research Inc. The reason is not solely economic—cobots will do the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that humans won’t. And by the way, there are fewer and fewer humans around to do them, in any case. A wide-ranging panel discussion today about cobots at PLAST-EX, part of the Advanced Design & Manufacturing Expo in Toronto through June 6, explored this provocative theme.

panel on collaborative robotics at Advanced Design & Manufacturing Expo
Joe Campbell (left) of Universal Robots was part of a panel at Advanced Design
& Manufacturing Expo in Toronto discussing collaborative robotics.

Joe Campbell of Universal Robots (Odense, Denmark) recounted a personal experience that illustrates how cobots are transforming the manufacturing landscape even in small companies. A little while ago he was interacting with a small contract machine shop that had 16 employees. “As an automation guy, it’s the sort of company where I never would have made it through the door. But the owner couldn’t find machine operators, and when he did find them, he couldn’t retain them, because the job of loading machines day in and day out is repetitive and boring,” Campbell told PLAST-EX attendees. “So he invested in a cobot. He’s a smart man, but he doesn’t have an engineering degree and is certainly not a robotics programmer. At the end of the first year, though, he had installed 10 cobots, and he has grown his business to the point where he now has 22 employees,” said Campbell. He is not an outlier, he added.

While the narrative about robots replacing humans in the workforce continues to have traction, educational outreach by the industry is bearing some fruit. The simple fact of the matter is that if you want to support a domestic manufacturing base, as several of the panelists noted, you don’t really have a choice.

There simply are not enough people to fill the open manufacturing positions, stressed Campbell. 10,000 baby boomers are retiring each and every day, and dull, dirty or dangerous jobs are not attracting young people. There are shops that have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in machine tools, “and they can’t find people to operate them. You’ve got a half-million dollars worth of equipment sitting there,” said Campbell. “That’s not good economics; it’s not good for business or the company or for other employees.”

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