Robots vs. jobs: Jobs win

Think Again: Smart applications of automation and robotics save and create jobs. Proposed Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation could advance manufacturing more quickly.

By Mark T. Hoske February 4, 2013

Robots are motion-controlled automation. Automation and robots create jobs. When automation and robotics are discussed and applied without appropriate communications, they make some plant-floor workers worry about continued employment. Truth is (and this isn’t necessarily intuitive when robots are first introduced to a site), automation saves manufacturing and other high-technology jobs. When automation is applied correctly, employees feel more valued and secure.

Overall, manufacturing strives for continued productivity gains. Plants can improve processes and apply automation to gain productivity. Or the least productive plants can refuse to improve and eventually go out of business, which increases the productivity average among those remaining. While both scenarios continue, applying automation is the better choice. At the co-located Automate 2013 and ProMat shows, success stories flowed.

Robots create jobs and help move workers to better, higher paying, fulfilling, and safer jobs, according to John Hayes, national accounts manager at Seegrid, manufacturer of driverless robotic industrial trucks.

“Qualified workers are difficult to find. Automation doesn’t take satisfaction away. Automation is empowering, by eliminating labor in some areas, taking some non-value-added activities out of the process,” Hayes said during the ProMat session, “Fact: Robots = Jobs.”

Macro-level statistics support the premise. Each 1% of manufacturing industry saved represents 1.45 million employees, added Jeff Burnstein, president, Robotic Industries Association. Germany is a robotic productivity poster child, having doubled robot use in recent years with an increase in manufacturing jobs and fewer lost during the downturn. “If we had more robots, we’d be losing fewer jobs,” Burnstein said.

The Roadmap for U.S. Robotics, the basis for the National Robotics Initiative, will provide details to Congress on that topic in March. The robots = jobs concept is cited in great detail in “Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment,” a 2011 Metra Martech Ltd. study commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). IFR stated, “Japan, Germany, and now Republic of Korea have invested more [in industrial robots], and have lost fewer jobs in manufacturing in the period covered by the study,” 2000-2008.

To lower costs and be more competitive, manufacturers often look at offshoring (not as economical as once thought) or using automation and robotics to keep assembly and other jobs here, said Henrik I. Christensen, Kuka Chair of Robotics at the College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology. Christensen, also the director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, was a keynote presenter for the combined events. Since manufacturing creates 1.3 support jobs for each manufacturing job (more than any other sector), keeping manufacturing competitive with productive applications of automation and robotics will do us a world of good, he suggested.

Administration’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Jan. 16 report, based on input of nearly 900 stakeholders, describes an approach to implementing and managing a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a proposed national network of up to 15 Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs) around the country that would serve as regional hubs of innovation to boost U.S. competitiveness and strengthen state and local economies. The NNMI report, “Preliminary Design National Network for Manufacturing Innovation,” acknowledges:

“The U.S. manufacturing sector continues to be a mainstay of our economic productivity, generating $1.8 trillion in GDP in 2011 (12.2% of total U.S. GDP). Manufacturing firms lead the nation in exports: The $1.3 trillion of manufactured goods shipped abroad constituted 86% of all U.S. goods exported in 2011. Moreover, manufacturing has a larger multiplier effect than any other major economic activity—$1 spent in manufacturing generates $1.35 in additional economic activity. Manufacturing’s underpinning role also is corroborated in international studies. For example, according to the World Economic Forum, over 70 percent of the income variations of 128 nations are explained by differences in manufacturing product export.”

To help, NNMI suggested that preliminary IMIs, which sound a little like the successful Frauenhofer Institutes in Germany, should include:

  • Applied research, development, and demonstration projects that reduce the cost and risk of developing and implementing new technologies in advanced manufacturing
  • Education and training at all levels
  • Development of innovative methodologies and practices for increasing the capabilities and capacity for supply chain expansion and integration
  • Engagement with small- and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises, as well as large original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)
  • Access to shared facility infrastructure, with the goal of scaling up production from laboratory demonstrations and making technologies ready for manufacture. 

It’s good to see productivity proponents think again about the value of innovation, automation, and robotics for manufacturing.

Online extra This online posting contains more information above than the February print and digital edition and extra information below.

Christensen, at Georgia Tech, noted that robots can do in-process inspection to reduce waste and increase quality; increase volume, speed, and density in manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution centers; help with mass customization; and get products to customers more quickly. Laboratory automation increases the speed of discovery and lowers the cost of production of life-saving or life-changing medications. Robots also benefit composite manufacturing, hospital logistics, agile assembly applications, and package handling. New codes and technologies allow robots to operate in human spaces without traditional guards, and new easier-to-use robots are breaking the 25/25/50 rule, where 25% is the cost of the robot, 25% is auxiliary hardware, and 50% is software and programming, Christensen said.

Huge advances in robotic programming through ROS Industrial and OpenCV, an open source computer vision and machine learning software library, are making robots more accessible, Christensen said. “The average 20-year-old U.S. male has spent close to a year, on average, using first-person gaming software. Why do automation user interfaces look like they were designed by a 40-year-old engineer sitting in a lab somewhere?”

Hayes, from Seegrid, said American Packaging Corp., Columbus, Wis., implemented robotics with no reduction in labor, and increases in productivity, sales, job satisfaction (with an increased employee skill set), work environment safety, and wages. The company added 9% in manufacturing jobs as a result of its robotic investment.

– Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Additional resources 

– IEEE Robotics & Automation Society Transactions on Automation Science and Engineering

– IEEE Robotics & Automation Society Transactions on Robotics

– North American Robotics Market Sets New Records In 2012

See Control Engineering articles and videos on ROS Industrial, Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics (Baxter), ABB Robotic, Yaskawa Motoman, among others, below.

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.