Although robotic technology has existed for decades, its true business value still is emerging. And that value has little to do with completely replacing human workers.
“When I first started in robotics and I would talk to people about automating, the concern was always about taking someone’s job,’’ says Mike Cicco, a general manager at robotic automation supplier FANUC America. But the 16-year industry veteran says he has always emphasized that robotic technology is not about reducing jobs; it’s about making processes safer and increasing productivity.
As automation was developing, the objective for manufacturers was to have the robot mimic the actions of a human. But robotic technology soon became about maximizing the power of these advances by creating entirely new processes. At that time, the larger questions about robotics revolved around using the technology to its fullest potential to strengthen business operations.
Robert Plant, an associate professor of business at the University of Miami, explains that businesses used robotic systems in innovative ways, and professionals questioned every process and interconnect through a “technology-people-process lens.” He says this was done to not only reproduce existing operations in a more effective way, but also redesign relationships and “rearchitect them through the new technologies” as they came to market.
However, FANUC’s Cicco notes that a lot of manufacturing today is returning to North America as automation helps drive a change in response to more sophisticated market demands. (See sidebar.) Understandably, as manufacturing and automation come back, the fear of job displacement also is making a reappearance. For example, Cicco says line workers have become less necessary as robot technology steps in to do manual, repetitive tasks. “Employment does go down because of the fact that you get rid of operators when you replace those with robots,” he admits.
Yet the evolution of robotics has a big upside for skilled workers. “You still need the managers; you still need the machine technicians,” Cicco says. “You add robotic programmers and robot technicians, and … although the low-skilled labor rates do go down, you increase your production so much that you end up needing more technicians and more managers.”
He also believes that robotics-focused positions are more satisfying than many other manufacturing jobs because of higher pay and more rewarding work experiences. Furthermore, today’s manufacturing facility is built with robots in mind, so there will be increasingly more conveyers, cylinders, and sensors—and each requires technicians and programmers to maintain them.
In 2011, the International Federation of Robotics projected that more than 1 million robot-related jobs would be created by 2016, which is equivalent to twoto-three jobs per robot in use. According to the study, 3 million to 5 million jobs would not exist if automation and robotics had not been developed to enable cost-effective production of millions of electronic products. In the most robotics-heavy industries, employment has gone up 20 percent compared with those companies that incorporate fewer robots in their manufacturing, according to a 2014 study by the consulting firm PwC and The Manufacturing Institute titled “The new hire: How a new generation of robots is transforming manufacturing.”
“Once you start to automate, you start to realize all the benefits that come with robotic automation,” Cicco says. “There are certain things that people are absolutely necessary for, and then there are certain things that robots do a much better job with.”
Productivity and flexibility
One of the main drivers of automation is increasing productivity. For companies looking for an edge on global competition, using robots means they can bring the products closer to the customers, bring products to them more quickly, and customize the products faster than less-automated companies. “When you look at supply chain and what people want in a product they are manufacturing, they want fast deliveries, they want ever-changing product designs, and they want a competitive price,” Cicco says. “And when you automate and you have your manufacturing close to where the consumers are, you really get the best of all worlds.”
The University of Miami’s Plant, who is vice chair of business technology at the university’s business school, notes that productivity increases can be very impressive. He observes that Amazon’s Kiva system—a fleet of machines installed at Amazon warehousing facilities that automate order fulfillment—can improve labor productivity by a factor of three. “There are also dexterous robots that can pick and pack, which can yield a six-fold reduction in human capital,” Plant adds.
A majority of the time, customers are looking for a return on investment from reduced manual labor and increased output from a work cell. “A side benefit is commonly a higher level of quality from an equivalent work cell manually operated,” says John Burg, a division president at robotics systems integrator Acieta. He comments that many Acieta customers operate processing equipment manually at about 60 percent efficiency. However, when a robot is applied to the same process, the efficiency often exceeds 90 percent. “We have one customer that reported an increased output over a manual operation of 50 to 1,” Burg says. Although this ratio is uncommon, it is possible, and, in this case, the customer’s payback period lessened from a few years to a few months.
More customizable robots have been a boon to manufacturers as well. FANUC’s Cicco uses an example of a machine that makes round chocolate cookies. Suddenly, consumers may decide they want the cookies to be square instead. With hard automation, that machine would have to be scrapped, and the company would have to invest in an entirely new one. Robotic automation is more flexible. “With robotic automation, we can make that change instantaneously,” Cicco says, adding that this enables manufacturers to be more competitive and meet consumer demand rapidly.
The PwC report also notes that industrial robots are most commonly used to carry out onerous, tedious tasks. In robotics, this is referred to as the three Ds: dull, dirty, and dangerous. FANUC’s Cicco adds, “Instead of having a machine operator do the same tasks all day long, automation can do the job faster and with more precision.” Robots also can more easily handle parts filled with grease or discarded parts without minding the mess. Perhaps most importantly, robots are becoming increasingly safer. Many robots now can work within a few feet of their human counterparts without the threat of injury to employees.
Acieta’s Burg collaborates with customers on new applications and manufacturing challenges, especially those present in making metal products. He recalls a customer that had difficulty processing a part with sharp edges. “These edges were a hazard to the operating personnel,’’ Burg says. “Improving the work environment by reducing [an operator’s] exposure to hazards is a common benefit of robotic automation.”
When representatives from robotic solution providers such as FANUC visit a company interested in incorporating automation, Cicco says they look for the low-hanging fruit. “We might go in and say that, because this process is so dull for the worker, after about three hours he loses interest, and you’re getting a 30 percent scrap rate because of inspection errors,” Cicco explains. “If the process were automated, the inspection rate would increase to 100 percent, the scrap rate would go down to zero, and the company could pay off the automation quickly.”
Industry experts agree that a business that automates has a unique opportunity to keep its labor costs low, which, in turn, helps make its pricing more competitive. As productivity goes up—and as the robots are able to move faster and with higher efficiency and fewer errors— this enables the company to produce significantly more than it could manually. The third piece of this puzzle is keeping the robots closer to the consumers in each market the organization serves. When these three capabilities converge, a business can drastically improve its global competitiveness.
The Future Is Here
PwC and The Manufacturing Institute’s recent report “The new hire: How a new generation of robots is transforming manufacturing,” reveals that, of the 120 surveyed manufacturers, 59 percent currently are using some sort of robotics technology.
Since the Great Recession, robot orders have tripled, and investments in robot startups have increased, the report notes. In fact, about 61 percent of the survey respondents expect advanced robotics to lead to new job opportunities to engineer advanced robots and to manage the new robotic work environment.
In addition, the Robotic Industries Association reports record breaking purchases of robotic equipment, which also is a testament to the growth expected in robotic technology. For example, Google recently acquired Schaft, Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka Robotics, Holomni, and several other robotic solution providers.
As “The new hire” points out, “The entry of faster, smarter robots is coming at a time when companies from aerospace and defense to medical devices to consumer products are under increasing pres sure to respond quickly to customer preferences and expectations ... Faster setup times and increasing applications will enable robots to play a greater role in companies following through with the mandate of customization.”
Ingrid Ostby is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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