Robots are no longer the stuff of sci-fi nightmares but are increasingly transforming manufacturing in the U.S. Industrial robots are getting cheaper, more skilled, safer for humans to work around/with, and better integrated into software and systems like ERP. As industrial robots get smarter, faster, cheaper, and more collaborative, they’re also being asked to do more by manufacturers.
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the sale of robots is at an all-time high. By the end of 2018, the IFR estimates that 2.3 million industrial robots will be in operation across the globe. A survey from consultants PWC found that 59% of U.S. manufacturers are using robots to do their work, and that number will only increase as the capabilities of robots improve. In some of the more “advanced” segments of manufacturing, such as aeronautics, electronics, and automotive manufacturing, the use of robots has become commonplace.
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Australian trailer manufacturer Drake Trailer, for example, integrated a robot welder into its trailer production line and not only reduced human injuries (welding is dangerous work) but also increased productivity by 60% in the process. Robots are doing assembly work and machining all across the manufacturing industry, and as robot technology progresses, so do the tasks robots are given within manufacturing.
Robots and Jobs
Will robots steal our jobs, as many people fear? Yes and no. Machines have been transforming manufacturing and human work for hundreds of years. Robots will doubtless be performing more routinized, repetitive tasks once done by human workers, especially in areas like assembly and precision tooling. Robots are taking on more “human” capabilities such as sensing, dexterity, memory and trainability. Robots can now easily perform tasks like picking and packaging, testing or inspecting products, or assembling minute electronics.
The human element will continue to be necessary: in fact, the manufacturing jobs of the future will likely be higher-paying and higher-functioning
But what robots really mean for human workers is that their jobs will be re-shaped, moving humans away from repetitive, manual tasks – some of which are dangerous – that a robot can do more efficiently, 24/7 and moving towards more higher-functioning tasks like planning, strategic decision making with data provided by the robots, relationship building with employees and customers, and more. The human element will continue to be necessary: in fact, the manufacturing jobs of the future will likely be higher paying and higher functioning too. But robots will force manufacturing workers to continually upskill, pressuring people to develop new skills, many of them “soft skills” like relationship building, to remain relevant.
Robots don’t mean that job opportunities for humans will disappear. A recent article in Time magazine noted that “German manufacturers deploy three times more robots than U.S. companies, but they also still employ more humans” than U.S. manufacturers, even with a smaller population. When robots “win,” it doesn’t necessarily mean humans must lose.
Robots and “Smart” Manufacturing
One of the major drivers of the increased adoption of robots for U.S. manufacturing is their ability to generate and share performance-related data, for example, through ERP systems that enable digital transformation. Robots are a big part of the Internet of Things (IoT) trend where manufacturing becomes a blended, interconnected, and data-enabled system that combines technology and people to drive productivity. Indeed, robots are becoming safer, enabling people to work alongside them, as robots add sensors that allow them to detect people who are in their area, and take preventive action to avoid workplace accidents.
The next generation of robots may work well with people, being more agile in their movements and more flexible in the ways they can be deployed alongside people. Nobody wants to work “for” a robot, but working “with” them seems increasingly likely.
Combining Robots and Humans To Get the Best of Each
It isn’t robots versus humans or either robots or humans. The way forward for U.S. manufacturers involves constantly seeking to get the best of both human intelligence and tech-enabled intelligence (AI, robots, automation, etc.) to optimize productivity. This blending of tech and people has always been a priority for U.S. manufacturers. As the Time article cited above explains: “Ultimately, it is the convergence of artificial and human intelligence that will enable manufacturers to achieve a new era of speed, flexibility, efficiency and connectivity in the 21st century.”
Today's manufacturing employees are better educated, better paid and producing more valuable products
Robots are supporting growth in productivity and also driving higher-paid, more skilled jobs for humans. Over the last two decades, inflation-adjusted U.S. manufacturing output has increased by almost 40 percent, and annual value added by U.S. factories has reached a record $2.4 trillion, according to the L.A. Times. So more is actually getting done with less. Manufacturing employees are also better educated, better paid and producing more valuable products. These trends are great for U.S. manufacturers and for U.S. workers.
The Future of Manufacturing Employment is Bright for Qualified Humans
Far from robotics stealing jobs in U.S. manufacturing, there’s a growing need for more qualified workers in the manufacturing sector. Estimates are that two million jobs will go unfilled in the U.S. manufacturing sector, so more effort obviously needs to be made in training and attracting tech-savvy, skilled workers into the higher-paid manufacturing jobs of the present and future.
Despite the media hype tapping into fears of some robot apocalypse, industrial robots are changing manufacturing for the better. Robots will enable better jobs for humans, improve overall efficiency, and grow local industry. The manufacturing industry will not only survive “the coming of the robots,” but will thrive because of it, as will the savvy people who adapt to new ways of working enabled by these emerging technologies.