Embrace your future: How robotics and AI are changing manufacturing

GAMS, Session 1: Robotics and AI, Sept 12, 2018: 1 p.m. to 1:50 p.m.

August 17, 2018
Q: From your perspective, what are the opportunities that robotics will provide in a modern manufacturing plant? How will they improve operations, safety and productivity? 

Doyle: Collaborative robots present one of the biggest opportunities in the modern manufacturing plant. What we’re seeing is the next generation manufacturing workforce where collaborative robots work alongside employees and share the same space with employees, which isn’t the case with many industrial robots. 

In this scenario, robotics can touch many parts of the modern manufacturing plant, especially tasks that are repetitive, like fine detail assembly or those that ergonomically place a strain on workers, such as moving large items or transporting items in a warehouse where workers routinely have to walk several miles a day. 

Other advances in technology that have an impact on the manufacturing floor include the use of machine vision in robotic applications, which continues to grow as vision technology and interfaces have improved. End effectors have improved too, with many new product introductions as well as a strong start-up environment. 

We are getting closer than ever to where one type of gripper can pick up different product types and sizes. Finally, autonomous mobility allowing for the movement of products from point A to point B at a facility can certainly be a game changer as well. 

Shepherd: Small and medium-sized companies have not typically been able to afford industrial robotics due to lack on in-house programming capacities and limited capital spending budgets, but this sector is a prime target for collaborative robots. We typically experience a shorter sales cycle with this type of customer as their decision-making process is faster and they realize how quickly the robots will pay themselves back. 

Q: Some of the questions around robotics focus on the labor force. Some suggest robots are going to take away manufacturing jobs; others believe they are necessary to deal with the continuing skills gap in manufacturing. What are your thoughts?

Doyle: Our view is that robotics and automation create jobs. In fact, in order for companies to compete, they have to automate. If not, they go out of business and jobs are lost. We have been tracking robotics and automation over the past 20 years. What we’ve found is that when robot sales go up, unemployment goes down. 

Our member companies have turned to robotics and transformed their business. Marlin Steel Wire Products used to make baskets for bagels. They turned to automation and robotics and were able to enter new markets, such as the aerospace industry. Now, the company has more employees and much larger revenue. Marty Linn, the head of automation at General Motors, said that GM added 25,000 jobs and 10,000 robots to stay competitive. Going out of business is the biggest threat to jobs, not automation. 

What we should really be focused on is the workforce development and the skills gap. How can we fill that gap? One major challenge companies face is that they have open positions that remain unfilled today because they can’t find employees with the right skills. We need to do a better job educating the workforce and providing retraining programs to prepare people for today’s jobs. There’s a growing awareness of this need, which is why we’re seeing so much support for STEM education. 

We also need to do a better job of supporting community colleges and two-year programs that teach vocational skills because often these programs produce students with the practical, hands-on experience needed to work with automation technologies. 

Q: Artificial intelligence (AI) offers great promise as both a tool for analytics and for training. How close are we to bringing AI into use in manufacturing? Where can it be most valuable to plant managers? 

Doyle: It’s true that AI holds great promise, not just for manufacturing but for many industries. The use of AI and machine learning technologies are already starting to be used in manufacturing. One example of this is the use of sensors generating data to better understand the performance of the equipment, such as a robot, so that predictive maintenance can be done on the equipment before it breaks down, causing downtime at the facility.

It might be too soon to say where the greatest value lies, however. Before AI becomes practical, physical environments will need to be re-worked so that all relevant data is captured. That data needs to properly harvested, analyzed, and secured before any actionable recommendations can be made. And finding the kind of talent to undertake these initiatives is very challenging these days. As a user once told me, “I don’t need more data; I need more information!” It’s important to ensure the right data is collected and decisions can be made using that data. 

Q: With all the emphasis on robotics and AI, what will be the role of the human in manufacturing? How will humans affect manufacturing in the future? 

Shepherd: Unlike computers, machines and robots deal with the real world. They answer to the laws of physics, but they can’t communicate that easily. An interface, whether it’s on a machine, into a robot teach pendant or coming from a monitoring software, allows us to know more about what’s going on with the equipment and taking the right actions to prevent problems and of course improve production. 

Through our UR+ platform, we have several IIoT options that allows remote monitoring and access to our robots, enabling real time delivery of production data, instant status reports and much more.  

Doyle: Companies and the people that run them are always innovating new jobs and tasks for its employees. We feel that this will still be the case even as more companies adopt robotics and automation. New jobs, such as programmers, design and system integrators, and robot maintenance staff, are emerging that are high paying and high skill. 

As data become a key element as a result of automation, we’ll see more data analysis and jobs where the combination of technical and social skills is essential.