The Benefits of Embracing Robotics in Manufacturing

Robots don’t eliminate the need for skilled laborers—human involvement is needed to accomplish robotic tasks.

There is a constant wrangling over the traits of various generations; whether that be baby boomer, millennial, Gen-X, Gen-Y, Gen-Z or even the Generation Jones. While each decade brings change in the workforce, one thing remains true: skilled labor will always be necessary. However, manufacturing roles will evolve over time and laborers must adapt to new technologies to compete in their fields as the pending Fourth Industrial Revolution will impact the manufacturing industry.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It is marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, blockchain, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and biotechnology. 

Part of preparing for these emerging technological breakthroughs in manufacturing—particularly in the robotics sector—means embracing opportunities through additive, or hybrid careers.

Hybrid jobs are the future of manufacturing, especially those that implement robotics. Misconceptions portray robotics as the demise of manufacturing jobs. But, it’s quite the opposite. Robots don’t eliminate the need for skilled laborers—human involvement is needed to accomplish robotic tasks.

Examples of such positions include:

  • Machinist with Computerized Numeric Controls (CNC) programming experience
  • CNC programmers and operators
  • Robotics technicians
  • Quality technicians
  • Industrial engineers
  • CAD-CAM designers
  • Mechatronics experts

It is said that this ”fast-food generation” of today demands immediate results: If there’s no instant gratification, then it is not worth the wait or the effort. Naturally, it’s easier to program a robot to do the work as quickly and efficiently as possible. But the end result will not happen without human involvement.

The benefits of implementing collaborative robotics into manufacturing include:

  • New career paths. In addition to complementing already existing manufacturing jobs, robotics can create new positions
  • Programming repetitive tasks so workers can focus on other areas that require creativity and competitive thinking. Monotonous jobs like machine tool tending, material removal, and palletization are all jobs that can be easily taken over by robots while allowing workers to focus on other areas that require creativity and competitive thinking.
  • More flexibility for laborers. Laborers can afford to have flexible hours and lead more fulfilling roles.
  • Opportunity to attract new customers. Technological advances can create new services, which can in turn lead to new business opportunities.
  • Economic gains. More business brings more money. It’s a win for manufacturers and also increases competitiveness of the country. The rise of automation can be the key to building up American factories the U.S. economy, rather than sending work abroad. Manual arc welding, for example, is a mainstay of manufacturing that has benefitted from robotics. While it is cheaper to manually arc welding a small part in China, welding robotics have removed the need to do so. With improved quality and productivity preserving U.S. factories, jobs are saved and American manufacturers are able to expand operations at home.
  • Cost effective growth for small and mid-size manufacturers. Robots are becoming smarter, faster and cheaper. As a result, they are taking on more “human” capabilities like sensing, dexterity, memory and trainability. This allows small and mid-size manufacturers to grow but not have to pay another salary.
  • Increased productivity. Robots can take on jobs such as picking and packaging, testing or inspecting products, and assembling minute electronics. This leaves workers to take on more creative roles.
  • Safer jobs; robots can do the dirty work. Robots can take over jobs that take place in unsafe or tense environments. Safer jobs also means less workman’s compensation claims, which benefits both employees and companies.
  • Better educated, higher skilled workers. More skilled workers will bring higher paying jobs.  With more money, people can afford higher education.
  • Meaningful work for future generations. Robotics will create more rewarding jobs that will attract future generations.

In order to remain competitive, the U.S. will need to embrace robotics in the manufacturing industry. Other countries are already embracing robotics and it’s imperative for the U.S. to join this revolution. Much of this will also rely on collaboration.

An excellent example of the international benefits of integrating robotics into manufacturing is Siemen’s Amberg Electronics plant in Germany. Increased automation has improved productivity at the plant by more than 1,000 percent over the past two decades, all the while maintaining the same size workforce.

Sharing expertise with government officials, educators and supporters will spark new ideas and propel further innovation and opportunity. The manufacturing industry will grow by changing the landscape of automation.

Both robots and humans have a place in manufacturing and both are critical to the industry’s success. Remember, robots can’t take initiative, develop creative ideas, lead teams and solve problems. Humans can and will—with robots to assist their efforts.

John W. Kennedy, Ph.D. is CEO of New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP).

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