In 2020, robots will be celebrating the centennial birth of their name, and their species. How they celebrate will be up to the humans that program the micro-computers which direct their actions. Or, it may be up to them.
Coined for a mechanical, science fiction character in a 1920 Czech play, the term Robot means “forced labor,” but has evolved to represent so much more in our technologically-based society.
Robots and their advanced offspring are used to perform jobs that are repetitious, dangerous to humans, or are in hazardous or small environments people can’t reach.
Originally used in heavy industry, robotic devices have become ubiquitous, operating in all facets of daily life, including healthcare, aerospace, 3-D printing, self-driving vehicles, agriculture, food services, and the military.
Interestingly, the broad consensus in the robotics sector is that the “metal,” the physical nuts and bolts comprising the devices won’t change much going forward, but that the advanced micro-computer technology that drives robots into vast new applications will.
“A robot arm is a robot arm”, says Bernie Mucitelli of Applied Robotics, a firm specializing in end-of-arm-tooling. “But, what the new computers tell the grippers to do, and the feedback the sensors detect, so that the gripper can do complimentary, varied tasks, well, that’s where all this is going.”
THINK, ACT HUMAN AND MORE
Software advances for robotics are heading down some interesting avenues, most notably into robot “flexibility,” where multiple, diverse tasks are performed with one device.
Another innovation is in robotic feedback, sometimes called Artifical Intelligence, where a device can detect changes in its environment, then re-directing itself based on its “perceptions” to inform and perform a subsequent task.
Cobotics (collaborative robots) is also cutting edge, where devices are programmed to safely interact with their human co-workers in normally hazardous close quarters.
Robotic devices are also becoming more easily re-programmable, through relatively easy off-line apps and mobile devices. Carnegie Mellon University Professor of Computer Science Howie Choset said, “Robots are becoming re-purposable and more versatile. It’s costly and time consuming to install new programs and integrate devices into the workplace. We are working to drive costs down and make more collaborative robots that can work with people on shared tasks.”
Robotic off-line programmer Jake Harpell of Octopuz, a Canadian firm, has developed customizable software that can be simply downloaded like a phone app. “Our software allows for production to continue while the robot is being re-programmed. Its efficient and cost-effective. The next big thing in robotics is offline programming.”
IT’S ECONOMICS, TOO
Economics is driving this burst of ingenuity. If companies want to stay viable and compete, they need to get on the robotics beam. Although it’s estimated that the full sales cycle for new robotic devices can sometimes take between a year or two.
Pre-engineered robotics can go on line between four and eight months. Jim Mail, robotics business unit regional manager for ABB Inc., said, “Aerospace and medical applications have about a one-year ROI. General manufacturing ROI, about two years or more.” Robots are saving money by getting into smaller and smaller close-in work, allowing for “lean manufacturing”, which accounts for every micro-grain of material used in an industrial process.
Robotics are also leading the way in cost-saving soft-automation, which accounts for faster process and product changes, scalability, and the re-purposing or removal of redundant, aging equipment. It’s about the money.
Despite the initial high cost of installing robotics and fully integrating them into the workplace, it’s clear that they represent an imperative upgrade for firms whose only alternative may be to close up shop. As many small to mid-size firms have no experience buying or using robots, a class of human consultants called “Process Integrators” now assists companies in all phases of purchase, design and implementation. These integrators are a vital bridge between robot manufacturers and end-users, facilitating executive and workforce training, especially critical in robot scenarios where people work in tandem with robotic devices on the factory floor.
ROBOTS TRAIN ROBOTS
The Federal government sees the value in developing advanced robotics for industry. ARM, the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, is a public-private partnership launched by Carnegie Mellon and supported by the U.S. Defense Department.
A new $250 million initiative was recently announced to support the second phase of robotics revolution with new technologies for innovative applications, offering robotics education and workforce training. Some of ARM’s efforts are to combat the deep-rooted notion that robots kill jobs.
Although much of traditional manufacturing has evaporated from America, some of it has gone to robotic industrial plants overseas, where low human labor costs and robotic production lines make everything from cars to shirts.
ABB’s Jim Mail emphatically states, “The goal is not to replace people but to mitigate the shortage of skilled labor that can create high tech products. Robotics actually creates new, high-paying jobs, often beginning at $250,000 right out of college.
The old assembly line is dead and we’re replacing it with technical trades that are somewhere between blue collar and white collar. It’s a new economy.” TJ
By all measures, robotically produced products and enhanced services are booming. New, high-paying opportunities are opening for anyone with even basic training and aptitude. Colleges are offering majors in robotics, including repair, app program development, R & D, and advanced manufacturing.
Virtually every business sector, from aerospace to manufacturing to medical uses robotics in ever-expanding and more sophisticated capacities. This growth will require increasing numbers of technicians, sales force, consultants and administrators every year.