Wanted: a human touch to manage the robots

In a race between the humans and the robots, right now the robots are winning. But there's still time for the humans. It may well be part of the science of manufacturing, but it's no longer science fiction. The idea that robots can perform tasks deemed too dangerous or repetitive for humans is well beyond theory and deeply ingrained in practice in most every manufacturer in America.

06/15/2008


In a race between the humans and the robots, right now the robots are winning. But there's still time for the humans. It may well be part of the science of manufacturing, but it's no longer science fiction. The idea that robots can perform tasks deemed too dangerous or repetitive for humans is well beyond theory and deeply ingrained in practice in most every manufacturer in America. Good thing, too.

Robots are useful at a time when humans in manufacturing are in short supply. When I visited Spirax Sarco's facility in Blythewood, SC last month to formally present the 2007 Top Plant award to the employees at a luncheon, among the attendees were the vocational educational leaders from Blythewood High School and the civic and political leaders from the region. All of them understand that the future growth of South Carolina's manufacturing economy depends on growing the next generation of manufacturing workers.

For growth regions such as South Carolina as well as for established manufacturers, the worker shortage is looming. (Some pundits in the popular media think the worker shortage is science fiction, too, but they don't get out much.)

Manufacturers and regional leaders are hustling to build a strong, agile, 21st century workforce capable of dealing with the changing manufacturing landscape. One of the big changes in that landscape is being able to work with the robots.

Robotics isn't going anywhere; robots are going everywhere. What will be needed are people with the fundamental understanding of the robot's tasks and the ability to program them to perform those tasks. We can recruit more robots; we're struggling to recruit the people.

Those efforts are under way in earnest now. In Chicago, a high-tech high school is being created to bring junior high students in touch with the possibilities of manufacturing. There is a program in Tennessee that actively recruits young people into manufacturing. All over America, manufacturers are throwing open their doors to young people to show them what the modern world of manufacturing really looks like.

What we're talking about isn't a George Jetson-type pressing buttons. Most young people don't know who George Jetson is. They are more in tune with video games of all ilk that teach teamwork and problem solving. That concept was put forth at a presentation on this issue at the IBM Pulse conference in Orlando last month by consultant Phil Verasis. He's absolutely right. We need to engage our next generation of workers to embrace these robots.

We're looking for engineers who can marry the possibilities of safe, streamlined production with the human creativity that turns dreams and ideas into finished goods.

Some people saw robots as a way to eliminate the manufacturing worker. What really happened was the worker stayed away, and we depended more on the robots. Now we need the human touch to make the robots work.





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