As robots began to be deployed in automotive plants 40 years ago, experts predicted the technology would quickly transform manufacturing. That fast, comprehensive transformation, however, didn’t come about.
“The expected revolution didn’t happen,” says Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation.
But robot technology continued to improve and expand to other sectors of manufacturing and society as a whole. Call it a marathon, not a sprint, with lots of checkpoints and milestones along the way.
In the early 1980s, robotic welding applications led the way in the auto industry, Burnstein says. And automotive remains the largest manufacturing sector deploying robots.
“What did happen is, over time, robots became better, easier to use, less costly,” Burnstein continues. “New applications were developed where robots could do material handling, machine loading and assembly. It wasn’t just welding any more. As we’ve gotten to the point where we are now, every industry can take advantage of robots, every size company—small, medium and large.”
“Japan was leading the charge and America was following,” adds A.K. Schultz, co-founder and CEO of SVT Robotics Inc. ”They were using articulated arm robots to manipulate things with the goals of labor savings and, more important, perfect welds.”
But in the mid-1980s, General Motors Co., the largest user of robots in the world at the time, ran into major problems with the operation of its robots. As a result, the automaker canceled new orders, and the overall industry deployment slowed.
Another expected change that hasn’t happened is lights-out manufacturing. Turns out, people are still needed.
“I’ve been in the robotics industry for over four decades,” Burnstein relates. “When I first got involved, people had expectations (that) robotics was going to be the next industrial revolution.”
The thinking at the time, he says, was that every company and every industry would soon need robotics to be successful—that the technology would change everything.
“We thought robots would take over completely and fully, where robots did all the work without people,” agrees Rasmus Smet Jensen, vice president of marketing and strategy at Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) A/S.
“The holy grail that everyone thought we would get to in the not-so-distant future was lights-out manufacturing—complete automation of the factory with potentially no human involvement,” adds Dave Northup, director of product management for Otto Motors, a division of Clearpath Robotics Inc. and provider of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). “Lights-out manufacturing underperformed. We were a bit unrealistic in that concept.”
Forty years later, “(and) we’re just getting started now,” Burnstein says. “So many industries—agriculture, construction, life sciences, restaurants, retail—are looking at how to automate.”
Even now, lights-out manufacturing is not necessarily a goal to be sought in most cases. “There are a host of things that make it impractical to take humans out of the loop in manufacturing,” Northup says. “There are elements of humanity you can’t easily automate, nor should you.”
For example, even in the age of improving AI, humans still “embody judgment, creativity and context that individual robots don’t have,” Northup declares.
A major shift happened in 2020, Burnstein says, citing statistics from his association. For the first time, nonautomotive companies, taken as a collective, purchased more robots that year than their vehicular counterparts. “It took a long time to get to the point where we are now,” he says. “We’re seeing huge growth in the nonautomotive sector.”
Overall growth has continued, with the number of robots sold in 2021 climbing 28% over 2020 levels, according to the association. This is partly attributed to supply chain disruptions. Companies ordered more in advance to make sure they got what they needed in time, he says.
However, the auto sector pulled ahead again last year, Burnstein says, pointing to heavy investments in electric vehicle technology as a new adoption driver.
Despite all the stops and starts and lack of a lights-out breakthrough, there have been plenty of incremental and significant benefits as manufacturers large and small continue to adopt automated solutions. Here are six standouts:
1. Cost Reduction
Early goals were to increase efficiency and productivity, leading to cost savings.
“When I started my career, the concept of cost reduction was most important. In the manufacturing space, the initial driver was increased efficiency,” Northup says. “Everyone was looking for ways to do more with less. You were trying to show ‘if I introduce a robot, I can save you money relative to a human worker doing a similar task.’ That was essential. We were trying to show our customers a favorable ROI.”
According to Burnstein, a two-year return on investment is reasonable. Jensen concurs. “Companies would like ROI within one to two years. That has been the main driver for looking into robots.” Companies that deploy robots also have more growth and therefore expand their workforce, he says.
Automation and robotics help to reduce costs, waste, production time and labor output, adds Chris Lorente, executive director, global accounts, food and consumer packaged goods at FANUC America Co. The cost of robotic technology has also “drastically come down, which has lowered the economic barriers, previously preventing companies from investing,” Lorente says.
“Automation allows data to be collected much faster—providing companies the ability to monetize their data and set up predictive analysis,” Lorente adds.
A 2020 study by researchers at Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that adding one robot to a geographic area reduces overall employment in that area by about six workers, while adding one robot anywhere reduces employment nationwide by 3.3 workers.
A survey by the International Federation of Robotics found that half of U.S. companies expect advanced robotics technology will lead to fewer workers, with a breakdown of:
One in 10 companies predict reductions of more than 20%.
About 4% anticipate reductions of 11-20%.
About one-fourth of respondents project 5-10% fewer jobs.
However, 62% of those surveyed said they expected to increase the number of industrial engineering jobs dedicated to robotics.
Manufacturers don’t want to talk about cutting jobs, but rather getting work done with fewer front line employees. This is a valid point considering applicants are no longer lining up for those jobs.
“How do you remain competitive and productive if there are no people who are willing to work for your company?” Burnstein ponders.
“We’re not necessarily being judged by the cost of a robot vs. the cost of a human. The pandemic highlighted a lot of inadequacies in the global supply chain and available labor pool,” Northup says. “Because of that, I don’t necessarily have to prove my solution is cheaper than a human doing the work. Many of our customers can’t get a human to do the work in the first place. If you can’t get a human to do the work, your costs skyrocket. People are looking to bolster their manufacturing processes through automation by offsetting some of the inconsistencies they have with human labor pools.”
2. All Ashore!
Robots also are enabling companies to bring manufacturing back to the U.S., as reshoring drives cost savings and getting more done with fewer employees.
“When I first got started 40 years ago, the United States wasn’t necessarily competing with every company in the world in terms of manufacturing,” Burnstein recalls. “Now manufacturing jobs are going overseas to chase low-cost labor. But low-cost labor alone won’t get it done.”
“The issue I’m asked about all the time is, ‘What impact are robots going to have on jobs? Are they job killers?’” Burnstein says. “I say, ‘The biggest threat to jobs is when companies can no longer stay competitive.’
“That’s when companies are at risk,” he continues. “We saw this when companies shipped manufacturing across the world, chasing low-cost labor. This had an impact not only on jobs in factories but jobs in those communities that depend on those jobs in factories—jobs in restaurants, shops. Those communities would have been better off automating and keeping those jobs here. Now companies are trying to bring manufacturing back to the United States and automating is helping with that.”
3. Automating the 3 Ds: Dull, Dirty and Dangerous
The often-cited “three Ds” of manufacturing jobs—dull, dirty and dangerous—have driven high turnover and in turn are, “killing productivity,” Burnstein laments.
“Multiple things beyond ROI drive the demand for robots,” Jensen says. “Manufacturers want to improve workplace safety and employee satisfaction.”
In factories with robots, highly trained workers can focus on running their machines as opposed to having to step away to do manual labor for which they’re overqualified. Instead of spending their days moving components and finished items from place to place, for example, skilled workers can spend more time at the machine, Jensen says. “Robots have taken over some of the manual, dangerous and dirty tasks and people do the last part of the automation process.”
Robots allow “companies to send their employees back to school to upskill their capabilities, earn more money and elevate their careers,” Lorente says.
“You can have humans focused on work where they’re adding the most value as opposed to moving materials,” Northup adds.
As for dangerous, Otto Motors is working to address that with its new autonomous mobile forklifts released in March 2022. More than 34,000 serious injuries and 85 deaths occur from forklift accidents every year, according to statistics from Deloitte, The Manufacturing Institute and “OEA Safeguard—Forklift Accident Statistics.” Of those accidents, 70% are deemed preventable with standard safety measures.
“The key thing is, AMRs are designed and built to adhere to industry standards, and they don’t deviate from that,” Northup says. “You don’t have a lapse in judgment or concentration. Oftentimes, distracted driving leads to car accidents. The same thing happens with forklifts. We believe AMRs will ultimately lead to safer workplaces through safety systems inherently built into the vehicles. Many of our customers are looking to that, not just for cost savings.”
4. Smaller Batch Sizes
In the early days, “Robots were doing the same thing over and over: one weld, one type of car,” Schultz says. “If you wanted to do a changeover, change the tooling for a Toyota Camry versus a Toyota Avalon, you had to switch the whole line over.”
Robots, especially autonomous mobile robots, are enabling high-mix/low-volume manufacturing. Now workers can build a minivan, a sedan, an SUV and a pickup truck all on the same assembly line, Northup says. Using an AMR, a step in the process can easily be skipped when the minivan needs a structure that doesn’t go on the sedan.
“Instead of what would normally be a crazy spiderweb of conveyor belts or AGV paths, you can use AMRs that are flexible,” Northup says. “They can take a different path through the factory. It makes for a more efficient use of space.”
The production line has forever been changed by robots. “Automation/robotics are so flexible and can be reconfigured and adapted to adjust to meet customer needs. Users can increase and decrease production quickly without spending a lot of money, depending on the current state of the market,” Northup notes.
5. Core Developments… and Scaling
Robots have moved from research and development to core fleets of nonautomotive companies.
“A few years ago, our robots were still in R&D and factories of the future; our clients were still trying to figure out how to utilize our robots,” Jensen confides. “Now we’re seeing robots move into the core fleets of our biggest clients. They have figured out how to use robots in their production areas.”
Robots are also scaling and customers are using their AMR deployment knowledge throughout different sites. “They copy the setup they have from factory to factory,” Jensen says.
For example, Otto Motors can scale up to 100 robots without sacrificing productivity, according to Northup.
6. Empowering Front Line Workers
Humans who work with robots are coming up with ways to better use the technology, Jensen says.
“Honeywell started with a simple process of just having the robots move goods from Point A to Point B, and the operators then had to unload the goods,” Jensen says. “When we revisited a few years later, Honeywell had implemented robots with RFID scanners on the top so the robots could deliver packages at the factory. Once you get the robot in and see how it works, front line workers see how the robots’ tasks can evolve. From our side, we didn’t have the imagination to think about all the ways robots can be used.”
At one facility, workers suggested putting UV lights on top of one of the robots to disinfect the environment.
Workers at a nuclear power plant suggested robots be used for automated waste removal.
In one workplace, robots drive around with sanitizer reminding workers to disinfect their hands.
What’s still needed: interoperability. “When you do deploy robots, you deploy many types of robots,” Jensen says. “You don’t have one robot brand who covers all your automation process. Interoperability is a hot topic without a solution yet.” He says the industry is trying to come up with standards to offer a solution.
Asserting that Industry 4.0 hasn’t been realized, Schultz blames data silos. Within each silo, a robot can change what it does based on what another robot is doing, Schultz explains. But beyond each silo, nothing changes.
“That is where interoperability comes in,” Schultz continues, and that’s what SVT is working to deliver to the industry. Data is normalized so that data imported from a forklift first can be applied throughout the factory, then at scale across other factories, he explains.
“Once that data is in a common system, you can utilize AI to automatically optimize cross fleet and give commands to change behaviors, to tell systems to change behaviors, or for instance if there are a lot of orders and the autonomous fleet is not keeping up, call in two more forklift operators,” Schultz says. “That’s what SVT is trying to solve.”
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