Tech Innovation

Will Robotics Save the Manufacturing Industry?

Traci Brown Writer
woman in manufacturing warehouse

Experts explain how robotics and Industry 4.0 will reshape U.S. factories, the manufacturing workforce, and the way that companies do business.

GM installed the first industrial robot on their factory floor in 1961. Ever since then, manufacturers have benefitted from the use of these mechanical workers that do not get tired, do not get injured, and, in some cases, are far more efficient than their human counterparts.

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Robots that have taken over many of manufacturing’s unskilled jobs are now opening the door to newer, higher-paying roles. Manufacturers are aiming to use collaborative robots – or cobots to assist and work alongside human employees, syncing human ingenuity with ever-advancing robotic technology.

“We’re going to need people who understand the physical processes of translating materials from one form to another, but they’re also going to have to understand the digital mechanics behind it,” said Irene Petrick, director of business strategy at Intel, and former information science and technology professor at Penn State.

She said many of today’s factories are sophisticated operations, running cutting-edge technology. New skilled jobs are being created at such an exponential pace that the manufacturing industry is having trouble filling them. And the need for digital-based skills continues to grow.

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According to studies conducted by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the U.S. manufacturing industry will face a 2-million worker shortage over the next decade, mostly because of the current lack of technically skilled workers.

Robots Will Actually Create More Jobs

Nicolaus Radford, co-founder and CTO of Houston Mechatronics, previously a principal investigator with NASA’s Dexterous Robotics Lab is optimistic about the job possibilities that will open up with the infusion of tech into manufacturing.

“The thing that I believe technology has always offered is employing people,” said Radford.

To cultivate a new generation of workers, the industry is putting 3D printing technology into classrooms, sponsoring and participating in robotics programs, and bringing students into their facilities.

The idea is to convince a younger generation that manufacturing is just as exciting, say, as tech jobs in Silicon Valley or aeronautics work at NASA.

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To attract more new entrants into manufacturing to fill the more immediate gap, Petrick said the U.S. needs to build an apprenticeship program and restructure internships. She pointed to Germany, which has had a robust apprenticeship program for years, as an example of what to do right when it comes to attracting and training new talent.

Robots Will Become Safer Co-Workers

Most of the robots common to manufacturing today are heavy machines with tremendous strength, such as those that lift and rotate car bodies on an automotive assembly line. Because they do not yet have the technology to stop safely when presented with unexpected obstacles, they’re kept in cages to prevent human injury.

However, there is a new trend in manufacturing to bring robots out of the cage, which is sparking greater levels of inventiveness.

Radford’s company is working toward a future where physical systems, including robots, communicate and collaborate with each other and with humans in a high-tech computerized “smart factory” referred to as Industry 4.0.

“There’s a need for the development of safer collaborative robots,” said.

Radford, “[because] in the very near future, less than five years, we will see people working shoulder to shoulder with robots.”

And it goes beyond creating a safe environment; robots must also be able to communicate with other robots as well as their human coworkers.

At Intel, Petrick leverages Intel teams working on new technologies such as computer vision, computer learning, and cognitive computing, which will enable robots to work more collaboratively.

“Right now, robots are highly purpose-built,” said Petrick. “In the future, they will have more ability to sense their environment and sense what operations might be more effective.”

Essentially, a manufacturing robot must be a jack-of-all-trades that is smart enough to improvise where needed, part of an industrial internet revolution.

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Those purpose-built robots may be efficient, but they are costly.

Not only is the sticker price high, but there is an astronomical cost attached to retool an assembly line. Tech Times reported that the retooling of Ford’s F-150 assembly line in 2015 cost the company over $359 million.

Collaborative robots, with their ability to improvise, will be more accessible for small and mid-size manufacturers. Instead of building your process around the robot, the collaborative robot will have the ability to roll around the floor and connect wherever it is needed.

“That’s exactly what [collaborative] technology is bringing to manufacturing right now. The flexibility to stop doing things like we’re building cars, and do things like we’re building crafts—more fine craftsmanship with automation,” said Radford.

That connectedness does have its price, though. When factories rely on the internet for communication between devices and people, they create a potential cyber security issue.

Not only are there vulnerabilities introduced through human error—such as the accidental induction of malware—hackers and foreign agents can take control of a factory system or piece of equipment via the internet.

Both Petrick and Radford agree that addressing the cyber security threat is no longer the sole responsibility of the manufacturer’s IT department. Security must be intrinsic and tightly monitored—from the asset through the fog to the cloud.

A multidisciplinary approach will be needed to ensure robots and humans can work side-by-side, in a cyber secure environment.

There is no doubt that the factories of the future will open up a host of fascinating jobs for anyone interested in robotics and STEM careers and that robots are helping to save American manufacturing.

Future generations may no longer envision the monotony of the assembly line when they think of manufacturing. To them, manufacturing will be a place of advanced technology, innovation—and even robotic co-workers.

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