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The New Era of Automation is Here
The New Era of Automation is Here
Factory workers are increasingly welcoming robots as they take on repetitive or backbreaking tasks, freeing workers to do higher-value jobs.
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With unemployment in the U.S. at 50-year lows, the conversation about factory automation has shifted from industrial robots taking jobs to robots solving labor shortages. Instead of fearing robots, factory workers are increasingly welcoming them as they take on repetitive or backbreaking tasks, freeing workers to do higher-value jobs.

It’s time to put-to-bed the notion that robots take jobs, at least in the OECD countries. Instead we need to recognize that it’s automation that is enabling a resurgence of jobs in the U.S., the EU, South Korea and Japan. Today, the problem is that companies are struggling to find people to fill the jobs that they have open in the manufacturing space. And the same thing is happening in many parts of the service economy.

Over the last 10 years, manufacturing jobs in the U.S. rose even as industrial robots proliferated. In May 2019, the number of workers in manufacturing jobs stood at 12.84 million up 1.5% from a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in the U.S. in June 2019 was 3.7%, a level last seen in 1969. With low unemployment, workers today have more choices for where they'd like to earn a living. That obviously means that companies have to pay higher wages, improve working conditions, or both. And since people can be pickier about what jobs they do, that often means letting machines do the less desirable tasks.

Consider a few examples.

Really dull jobs, like putting small boxes into bigger boxes for eight hours a day aren’t much fun. If companies can automate jobs like that, it allows a person to occupy a better role and do something more productive."

A recent Investors Business Daily article cites a company which added a robot for soldering circuit boards, which is a mind-numbingly dull job. Because a worker no longer has to do that work, he can focus on jobs like programming the robot, handling shipping and receiving, and doing information technology tasks at the plant.

As the employee explained to IBD, “The soldering work is repetitive and boring. It's the same move over and over. You're hunched over doing the same thing day-in-and-day-out. The introduction of the robot freed me up to do other things."

The soldering robot also can do the job with higher quality and greater productivity. "It doesn't get tired," he said. "Humans get tired. We get bored, so our minds start wandering. The robot stays focused on what you tell it to do at all times."

One of the biggest implications of increased automation is that it creates high-wage jobs for technicians who maintain the robotic systems. This makes perfect sense, because the main driver for factory automation is productivity improvements. Today's industrial robots are more intelligent and adaptable than ever before, allowing for faster changeovers on production lines. Companies like Proctor & Gamble are now looking at automation and robotics throughout the supply chain. That could be anywhere from material introductions into the production lines to end-of-line automation, which would include primary packaging, secondary packing and case packing. In the case of P&G, it is deploying factory automation at its factories worldwide because North America isn't the only region facing labor shortages and related business challenges.

Notably, factory automation is helping to make U.S. manufacturing even more competitive. When Barack Obama predicted that manufacturing jobs were “never coming back,” he failed to consider the impact of robotics on total costs and flexibility. For instance, P&G was able to cost-effectively transfer production of some beauty products from Latin America to the U.S. simply because of robotics.

In 2018, shipments of industrial robots to companies in North America rose 7% to a record 35,880 units, according to the Robotic Industries Association. In a major shift, the increase was fueled by companies outside the automotive sector.

Specifically, Robot shipments for food and consumer goods companies jumped 48% last year. Other industries showing notable growth include plastics and rubber, up 37%; life sciences, up 31%; and electronics, up 22%. However, the automotive sector still accounted for 53% of total shipments of industrial robots. But that's its lowest share since 2010, the trade group says.

The Robotic Industries Association also says the value of the industrial robots shipped in North America in 2018 topped $1.8 billion. The top two applications for factory robots are material handling and spot welding. Other major uses include arc welding, assembly, coating and dispensing.

The growth of the industry was evident at the biennial Automate conference, held April 8-12 in Chicago. The 2019 show saw attendance rise more than 25% from the 2017 show, exceeding 20,000 attendees. Automate is North America's largest showcase devoted to automation industry technology and trends.

One thing that was obvious at the Automate show and elsewhere: industrial robots aren't just for large companies anymore. Increasingly they're showing up in small and medium factories, as well.

According to Hui Zhang, head of global product management at ABB Robotics, "More and more small-size companies want to automate. In the past, it was essentially large companies with large-volume production problems to solve."

But robotics technology is now affordable for even two-, three- or four-person operations, says Zachary Thoma, director of sales and marketing for Padget Technologies, a systems integrator in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Thoma’s firm recently installed a Kawasaki robotic arm at a small firm in Nebraska. The mechanical arm automatically lifts and stacks heavy bags of barbecue wood pellets on pallets for shipping. Those bags weigh 40 pounds and the guys were standing there all day picking up bags and putting them on the pallets. It's a perfect operation to automate."

At this stage of industrial automation, a growing theme is that industrial robots are ideal for "dull, dirty and dangerous" jobs, known as the three Ds. And recently industry officials added a fourth D-word: delicate. It is these tasks for which robots are best suited.

Consider the example of Kay Manufacturing in Calumet City, Ill., which now has about 40 robots working alongside 175 workers. They're located at two factories making automotive components, mostly for drive trains and transmissions. Kay uses the robots for machine tending, quality inspections and packing.

Brian Pelke, president of Kay Manufacturing, says the robots have freed workers from boring tasks and have improved productivity.

Pelke says, “One robot can pack three times more units than a human worker can. Plus, the robots do a better job at inspecting and finding defective parts. They also are more precise in handling the parts, minimizing the risk of damage in the packing process.

Pelke said, "We make millions of these parts every single year. Instead of having an operator packing parts all day long, the operator is doing a lot more value-added activity, [such as] monitoring the process and adjusting the process. And it's a lot less.

Even as the industrial automation surge begins to gain momentum answers to some of the biggest questions are becoming apparent. Consider these:

First, “How are workers responding to the introduction of robots?” Speaking on a panel at the Automate show, Randy Tucker, chief executive of supply-chain company Geodis Logistics, said he hasn’t seen any pushback from workers when installing robotic systems. According to Tucker, "We anticipated concerns from our workforce thinking that robotics were replacing them. But that was not the case. We [now] have a much more engaged workforce in the warehouses where we have these robots."

Second, “What does this mean for productivity?” Some companies are already seeing a massive improvement in productivity from installing robots. Warehouses that have added pick-assist robots have doubled the number of units they are processing per hour. And,

Third, “How are robots impacting the labor shortage threatening industrial companies?” Tucker addressed the situation in the logistics industry saying, "The availability of labor is quite limited. Even though you read in the papers that [unemployment was] 3.8% here in the United States (in March 2019), that's the national average. In the markets that most of us operate in, it's closer to 2.2%. So, we are having to augment our labor with robotics." Beyond that, giving robots the Dull, Dirt, Dangerous and Delicate jobs offers health and safety benefits that human workers are coming to appreciate. What does this mean?

Consider an example. Battery Builders in Naperville, Ill., has seen fewer injuries thanks to automation. It is using a Kawasaki payload-lifting robot to lift metal plates used for making lead-acid batteries. Those plates can weigh 35-to-50 pounds.

"When you are lifting 35-to-50 pounds all day long, stacking battery plates, it does put a strain on your back," said Christopher Gatrel, environmental health and safety specialist with Battery Builders. "With everything being automated and the robot carrying the load, it's been a tremendous improvement in reducing the risk of injury." The robot also decreases worker exposure to lead in the plates. And while safety was a big factor in adding robotics, they have also accomplished the main objectives for buying the machines: increased productivity and improved battery quality.

Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

First, between now and 2033, there will be an extraordinary surge in productivity, triggered by a once-in-a-century confluence of factors.

As predicted in Ride the Wave, a flood of cheap capital and a shortage of human capital in OECD countries, are combining with exponential, advances in the cost-performance of ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence, and sensors, to trigger an explosion of investment in robotics. Until recently, the technology was not mature and a combination regulation, high taxes, off-shoring and a surplus of medium and low-skilled labor, discouraged companies from pioneering the use of productivity-enhancing technology. Furthermore, the bad experiences of some early industrial automation adopters, discouraged aggressive experimentation. But that’s all changed.

Second, because of their large, affluent, domestic markets, the United States, Japan, Germany and South Korea will reap the biggest rewards from industrial AI and robotics.

China is committed to achieving dominance in manufacturing, but rising trade barriers will prevent them from realizing the scale and learning-curve effects of its OECD competitors. This will be particularly true as Mexico achieves total cost superiority versus China in many industries over the coming decade. Today the U.S. ranks seventh worldwide in terms of robot density in manufacturing, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

The U.S. has 200 robots per 100,000 employees. South Korea is tops with 710 robots per 100,000 workers.

Third, U.S. government policy will continue to favor technology adoption in the manufacturing sector over the coming decade.

Policies have increasingly put U.S. labor and management on the same side in addressing the automation challenge. Beginning in the mid-80s, management harnessed globalization and immigration in its fight against rising labor costs and domestic regulation. However, current policies have changed the equation as cheap energy, rising trade barriers and immigration restrictions have combined with a surge in economic growth to put labor and management on the same side. Going forward both will be eager to embrace automation, beginning with increasingly sophisticated and relatively inexpensive industrial robots.

Fourth, rapid progress in industrial and military robotics will pave the way widespread adoption of service robotics. Service robots that deal with retail customers, hospital patients and the elderly at home must be reliable, safe, low-cost, and highly aware of their environment. Manufacturers and the military have higher budgets and less rigorous requirements. As robots proliferate in those environments, the technology will mature to the point where service robots become ubiquitous. And,

Fifth, the value of industrial robotics will be captured mostly by consumers and the companies who use the robots to serve those consumers.

The growth of industrial robotics has helped a host of tech companies, led by the "big four" of factory automation: ABB, Fanuc, Kuka and Yaskawa. Others include Japan-based Denso and Kawasaki, as well as U.S. companies Lincoln Electric and Teradyne. Teradyne has been the top-performing stock in this group, outperformed 94% of all stocks in key metrics over the past 12 months.

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