A couple years ago I visited one of the Fraunhofer Institute locations in Germany. One of the coolest experiences was interacting with a large robotic arm that seemed to bob and weave around me. It reminded me of a scene from the 1986 movie The Flight of the Navigator.
I wasn't afraid in the least. The robot was under control at all times, appeared to know where I was and that it shouldn't come into my personal space. Of course, I wasn't moving around too much and I wasn't in fear for my job, one of the biggest misconceptions about industrial robot integration.
In fact, a March 2017 report by Redwood Software and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) challenges the conventional wisdom that for each deployed robot, a corresponding human worker loses their job.
“There is clear evidence that points towards robotic automation in many cases being a complement for human labour, rather than a direct substitute," said David Whitaker, Managing Economist at CEBR. "As more mundane tasks are automated, human effort becomes more valuable as it is focused on higher-level tasks, creativity, know-how and thinking."
“Robotic automation is increasing the total number of jobs available — but it is also changing them,” said Neil Kinson, chief of staff at Redwood Software. “The increased level of automation investment highlights the need to rethink how we approach the skillsets needed in the workplace, and the importance of working with automation, and not against it.”
Trelleborg uses UR5 robots (payload 5kg) to carry out machine tending mainly on CNC machines. (Photo courtesy of International Federation of Robots)
I love what Kinson says there, "the importance of working with automation, and not working against it." That's the rub. So much of this technology has been available for quite some time, but without widespread adoption. Those days are over. By 2019, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimates 2.6 million industrial robots will be in service worldwide.
The IFR reports that the US automotive industry alone installed a record 17,500 industrial robots in 2016 (see chart below). In the last seven years, from 2010 to 2016, the operational stock increased by 52,000 units. Interestingly, during the same time period, the number of jobs in the US automotive sector rose by 260,600 — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that's just in the US. Those figures don't take into account the largest adopter of industrial robots — China. For more thoughts on jobs and robots, check out the IFR statement on The Impact of Robots on Productivity, Employment and Jobs.
So, yeah. Robots. They are here. They are going to be more prevalent than ever, and we should be very excited about that. Robots will be able to perform the menial, dangerous, and repetitive tasks, leaving more complex, higher level jobs for humans.
We've already talked a lot about robots and jobs, here are a few other comments about these other robotic myths:
Cost: The price of robots is dropping. Robot prices are 10 percent lower than they were in the early 2000s.The Baxter-2012 and Sawyer-2015 made by Rethink Robotics sell for $30,000 and are already working safely alongside people. This drop in the price of robots especially benefits small to medium enterprises (SME) because it multiplies production output for less capital investment, over time.
Programmability: Easy-to-program robots are becoming the norm. For example, operators with no experience in programming can set up and begin using Universal Robots (UR) by using either a touchscreen tablet or moving the robot arm to the desired positions.
Integration: Many new collaborative robots (cobots) are relatively lightweight and easy to move to other locations in your production space. They can be reprogrammed to perform different tasks.
Safety: Clearly some robots have to maintain their protective space requirements, but many robots are designed to interact safely with human co-workers and do so without incident.
Here's the thing: Whether you're a manufacturer looking to integrate robots into your workforce, a company that makes robots or a company that makes the parts that make the robot, the next decade is going to be filled with change. Because manufacturing is both creating change (making the bots) and experiencing change (deploying the bots) simultaneously, the industry can act as a thought leader in how robotics are perceived and integrated. Automation doesn't have to be scary. Properly understood and implemented, the introduction of robotics into our daily workplaces will result in more positive outcomes than we can even imagine now.