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Can robots play well with people?

Gary McCormick, Senior Design Engineer

Technology Trends

Robotics – Best Actor in a Mini-Series or Best Supporting Actor?

Robots. From their first mention in the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, through their depictions in post-WW II science-fiction literature and up through the present time when manufacturing robots are having a huge impact in a wide range of industries, the concept of a robot has had different connotations. Though the classic depiction of a human-analogue robot, bipedal and generally human-shaped, has little to do with the reality of robotic manufacturing machinery, there is still some of the same fear attached to the concept as in those hoary old 1950s sci-fi tales.

It comes down to jobs. Manufacturing robots are capable of performing dangerous and/or repetitive tasks, even in environments which would be intolerable to humans, and this fact has driven the conception that the use of robotics in manufacturing must inevitably lead to industrial job loss. While adjustments in labor tasking and distribution are inherent in the adoption of industrial robots, there are a number of factors which belie the myth of robot-related job-loss.

Numerous studies and experiences shared in industry round tables1 have shown that a big factor in the retention of manufacturing jobs when industrial automation come into the picture is that the use of automation is often the alternate to moving manufacturing offshore. And, while it is widely known that the use of industrial robotics reduces the likelihood of injury to human workers from heavy lifting, repetitive stress, and dangerous tasks, it is less generally recognized that a common result of the introduction of industrial robots is the shifting of workers into skilled jobs, including programming and maintaining the robots.

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The widespread introduction of industrial robotics has, in some cases, significantly increased manufacturing employment, though for different reasons, depending upon the initial conditions in the manufacturing sector. A study2 conducted by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) describes significant decreases in unemployment in Brazil and Germany coincident with the large-scale introduction of industrial robots.

In Brazil, a country which had a low rate of industrialization in the early years of the study period, the introduction of robotic manufacturing engendered an increase in manufacturing which led to an increase in jobs, of all sorts, in the affected manufacturing sectors. In other words, in this case the introduction of robots essentially created industrial employment opportunities where none had existed previously.

In Germany, one of the most industrialized nations on the planet, a relatively heavy investment in robotics (though behind Japan and South Korea) has led to a decrease in unemployment3 because the use of robotics has allowed the industries where robots are used to remain competitive in global markets.

It is more accurate to say that human workers in certain job descriptions are not replaced by robots, rather they are re-deployed, i.e., the use of robotics frees up a certain sector of the human workforce to take on other tasks.

While some lower-skilled human employees shift to new jobs which are created in distribution and services, the experience and process knowledge of human employees whose repetitive-task assignments are taken up by robotics makes them invaluable in the process of integrating robotics into their former positions. In other words, “displaced” human employees leverage their learned skills into higher-value positions in which they manage and direct the efficient utilization of robotics.

In general, there are three basic instances in which the introduction of industrial robots is seen to have a positive effect on employment rates:

  1. Industries requiring precision which cannot be achieved any other way.
    Electrical and electronic assembly is one of the industry sectors for this capability, which is provided by industrial robotics. The introduction of robotics, in this case, allows the introduction of an industrial sector to a country or region where it did not previously exist, creating jobs in all aspects of the industry – manufacturing, distribution, service, etc.
  2. Pharmaceutical production, with its emphasis on precision movement for counting, picking, and packing, is another industry falling under this classification.

  3. Applications in which the work is performed in hazardous, or even dangerous, conditions.
    Metal production; for example, where large, hot, forged metal objects are handled, is one industry where the use of industrial robots permits an industrial sector to remain in operation as work standards for human employees change, preventing the loss of employment which would result from the cessation of production. Hazardous material production, or industrial applications in which hazardous materials are employed, also falls under this classification.

  5. When an industry in a developed country is threatened by the potential for being undercut by a country with lower labor costs.
    As industrialization has spread across the globe, countries which were once the up-and-coming, low-cost labor threat to industries in more highly developed nations, are, in turn, threatened by units in emerging, lower-cost areas. The increased efficiency which accompanies the introduction of industrial robots is a big factor in keeping an industrial unit operating.

It is ironic that Japan, which was seen in the immediate post-World War II era as the low-cost manufacturing threat to the United States, was in turn threated in the same manner by China – which now faces lower-cost competition as its own standards rise.

The latest, more sophisticated robots will “play well” with humans

The introduction of newer, more sophisticated industrial robots which interact better with humans4 is a development which positively affects the impact of the introduction of robotics on human employment rates. Robots with simpler programming interfaces and advanced safety features which obviate the need for caging to separate them from human workers have the potential for revolutionary impacts on industry sectors which have not previously been impacted by robots.

The flexibility of tasking, and increased ease with which the next generation of robots can be taught a task, will allow their use for manual labor tasks that vary from assignment to assignment. Skilled personnel who are experienced in the task sets which the robot will be performing, but who are not necessarily trained in or conversant with conventional programming methods, will be able to “teach” these new-generation robots a new job in much the same way they would teach a human coworker who was new to the job.

This is another instance in which the increases in efficiency which the introduction of robot can bring to manufacturing can revitalize a small-scale manufacturing operation, keeping it economically viable and retaining jobs that might otherwise be lost to offshoring or amalgamation with a larger firm.

The traditional shift in worker roles which has accompanied the introduction of robotics in industry up to now, i.e., the change from manufacturing worker/assembler, etc., to programmer or maintenance/setup specialist for the robots which now perform the assembly work, was a factor in reducing the negative impacts of robots on employment. The new generation of robots brings the capability to allow experienced personnel to remain in their traditional positions, without retraining or reassignment, while the robot takes on a wide variety of low skill-requirement manual tasks.

In the final analysis, robots are your friends

Far from being the doom-and-gloom bugaboo that strikes fear into the heart of manufacturing employees, industrial robotics has the capability to be the exact opposite. Skilled, experienced employees, even those without higher education5, learn to use new technologies to increase efficiency and productivity, and even move into positions in which they “supervise” and direct the implementation of robotics. With the potential to help a region’s industrial sector retain existing industry employers, or even allow the introduction of industrial sectors not previously present, the introduction of industrial robots has the potential, when properly handled, to be a boon, not a bust.

Gary McCormick

Gary McCormick, Senior Design Engineer, is a mechanical engineer with 35 years of experience in mechanical design, production, and testing with a major American manufacturing company.

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