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How Robots Can Give America the Edge
By Mark Shortt
Robots have operated, for the most part, safely and productively in manufacturing companies–particularly in automotive assembly–for decades. But for many Americans, the thought of bringing robots into the workplace hits a sensitive chord, largely because our culture has been imbued with a fear that "the robots are coming!" and, worse, that they're coming for our jobs.
In the new era of collaborative robots, that fear can get in the way of making rational decisions about the best ways to prepare a company for success in a changing world. Most often, those fearful responses to the thought of bringing a robot into a manufacturing operation seem to be coming from people who haven't had experience with them.
American manufacturers that have taken the leap and invested in robotics to enhance their production operations have widely found them to be well worth their investments. Many can quickly rattle off a list of benefits–better quality, flexibility, speed, and accuracy, to name a few–that these precision workhorses regularly provide. And today, collaborative robots are providing new benefits by enabling humans to work beside them and with them, rather than having to be isolated from them due to their extreme power and speed.
Brian Ray, president and CEO of Ray Products Co., Inc., of Ontario, California, said that his company works with covers and enclosures that are complex in shape, with trimmed edges that may be hidden by molded undercuts. When he and his team started looking at robotic trimmers, the thing that most intrigued them was the fact that the table rotates 360 degrees.
"I could move a part on a fixture, on a table that rotates into any sort of position, and then a 5-axis head can come in and reach into areas on this part that weren't possible with something limited by a gantry-based constraint," he said. "So, all of a sudden, the 'canvas' we started working with was the whole area of reach that this robot could touch. And our fixturing suddenly became a lot different. We were able to access a specific area of parts that we couldn't before."
Ray said that when the company installed its first robot, it didn't know that it was actually going to help the company become a better molder–its core competency.
"Our core business is thermoforming and pressure forming, so we mold parts," Ray told Design-2-Part Magazine. "Trimming is a secondary operation. Once our robots got into place, we realized that we had to become a better molder. We had to become more accurate on the forming of parts because the robots were so efficient and so accurate, that they were really pushing the envelope from a secondary processing standpoint. So, we had to make sure that our forming capability elevated–that when we ran parts, that part-to-part repeatability was there, that material distribution was consistent, and that we were getting the finished part that we needed every single time.
"That was a tremendous eye opener for me–that something downstream would make us look at our very first primary, fundamental core processing technology, which is molding parts. It made us better, and that was something that I didn't even anticipate, but it was definitely a deliverable that came out of adding the robots."
Another big advantage of adding robotics is that it frees up employees to concentrate on the higher-skilled work that they really enjoy doing. One way of looking at it is that robots are good at complementing and enhancing the work that people do. It's not an either/or situation: The productivity of the robots can help human beings be more productive, too. And don't believe those who say that there won't be any need for human skills once a robot has been added to the shop floor.
There will always be a need for the inherently human communications skills, brainstorming, analysis, and creative skills that only humans can provide. Robots are great at following instructions and executing a program, but they can't do the troubleshooting that humans can do. They don't have the capabilities of those who've built them and integrated them into manufacturing environments.
"So you have to have people who are still looking at all aspects of the operation and are able to communicate with their peers and brainstorm and troubleshoot and challenge each other, so that the robotics are still relevant and pushing the envelope forward," Ray said. "But it's the people that are having the conversations, that are taking the feedback in on one side, processing it in between their ears, and then speaking about what they see–sharing their opinions and all those things. That kind of stuff is where people will continue to thrive in this environment."
Market research firm Grand View Research, Inc., has projected the size of the global industrial robotics market to reach $41.23 billion by 2020. According to the firm, companies that are integrating robots into their production operations are finding numerous benefits, from higher productivity and quality to a greater degree of flexibility and reduced waste. The bottom line is that they are realizing significant financial benefits.
Grand View Research also noted that industrial robots have spurred the development of a new ecosystem that offers lucrative, rewarding, and high-paying jobs. While venture capitalists have shown that they are willing to fund companies that design and manufacture industrial robots, advancements in artificial intelligence and the development of sophisticated sensors are expected to augment the development of self-programming robots, the firm said.
That's great news. But the story doesn't stop there. As one developer of AI-powered mobile robots told Design-2-Part Magazine, it's important for companies that have invested capital in robots, and are now realizing substantial savings, to reinvest those savings into their workforce to ensure that they continually have the skills needed in what is becoming an increasingly high-tech industrial environment.
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