October 26, 2012
New markets, new clients, U.S. jobs and re-shoring…industrial robotics sits at a critical point, and at the epicenter of social issues that a number of robotics companies are reluctant to discuss. Kicking off the Manufacturing workshop at RoboBusiness 2012 was a panel discussion in which executives from major industrial players including ABB, FANUC, KUKA and Energid Technologies gathered to identify emerging markets and suggest solutions to the issues surrounding industrial robotics.
Most emerging markets have been widely reported, as advancements in manipulation technology have allowed robots to gradually move up the line from stacking boxes to handling raw food materials. The usual markets, electronics assembly and aerospace, were mentioned along with the entertainment industry as mobile cameras and, as in KUKA’S case, theme parks innovate with robots.
But Michael Cicco, General Manager of National Distribution Sales at FANUC Robotics America pointed out a reality that Rodney Brooks and his Baxter robot demonstrate—robots can now do new jobs in familiar industrial spaces.
“We’ve taken very traditional markets and we’re getting into new and emerging people,” Cicco said, noting that FANUC has recently been able to introduce more flexible robots into two-person machine shops. He attributes that migration, in large part, to the availability of advanced sensing technology.
Energid’s Chief Business Development Officer, David Askey, agrees that better perception, lower price points and easy implementation has made robotics useful for a whole new set of applications in the modern industrial space. “For a while we thought that the industrial market was saturated,” Askey said. He added that software can now make up for lower cost, “sloppy” hardware when a task requires advanced dexterity.
Another phenomenon, not so much emerging as it is evolving, is the role of the robotics integrator. As the variety of robotics applications increases, the role of the integrator as the expert in his or her vertical market becomes key.
Interestingly, integrators are now feeling the pressure of being sandwiched between end user and robot manufacturer as the agent responsible for more and more “stuff”, including regulatory compliance, user support and workforce training in some cases. While they are essential now, it is also unclear exactly how the role of the integrator will continue to develop in the SMB market as more ready-to-use solutions, like Baxter, become available.
The elephant in the room was, of course, the notion that robots eliminate jobs. All the panelists agreed that education and awareness about robots’ effect on jobs and productivity is essential if robotics is to gain a wider client base.
“I think what we’re all doing here today is helping what’s preventative right now and that’s awareness…the stigma that robots are taking away jobs,” Cicco said.
Potential industrial clients and policymakers are reluctant to throw their support behind robotics (particularly in an election year) with manufacturing jobs a central focus in the struggling economy. A mainstream PR push was one suggested method to raise awareness of the benefits of the changing manufacturing climate.
“The reality is that automated customers will take market share,” said John Bubikovich, Executive Director of Marketing and Business development at ABB. All panelists pointed to re-shoring as a real positive trend that is gradually bringing production closer to the customer.
If you look at case studies, redeployment, rather than elimination, of employees is the actual norm. Early on, robotics companies are helping clients identify the best candidates for promotion to more sustainable positions overseeing and maintaining the robots. Case studies also reflect the fact that employees quickly adapt, and are often enthusiastic, about the presence of robotic technology as they become more familiar with it.
Bubikovich added that factory workers must become robot advocates. “The only way we can compete is re-education of the workforce,” he said.
The robot manufacturer and integrator, sometimes in cooperation, are now handling worker re-training, but pre-emptive education programs could begin popping up as U.S. manufacturers are forced towards advanced automation to compete even domestically.
Educating traditionally conservative industrial clients on the best solutions and realistic outcomes is another challenge for both robotics engineers and integrators.
“I think about the old saying ‘the customer is always right’, in some cases in our industry if that was the case, then you would get a pair of pants that was two sizes too small,” said Bubikovich.
Bubikovich emphasized the fact that companies who bring engineers and integrators into the equation early on in their decision-making process yield much better results. Too often, the panelists noted, the customer has developed their own solution without fully understanding the technology that is available to them. Similarly, value propositions have to evolve to reflect the multiple ways that robots impact productivity.
According to Christian Wurll, Technical Director of Logistics at KUKA, most end users look for financial justification for their robotics investments within one to two years, and they tend to look at labor savings alone. Justification, Wurll added, must include quality, so that end users understand the true effect that consistent and hygienic robotic technology has on their final product.
Rethink Robotics’ Rodney Brooks was quick to separate his Baxter robot from the kinds of roles that heavy duty industrial robots take up. He has built a robot suitable for basic applications in small to medium businesses. Still, with increasing flexibility now allowing major players to target medium-sized customers and the inevitable decrease in hardware costs, it seems the paths of Baxter and today’s caged mammoths must eventually converge. It will be interesting to see which evolutionary tree will yield the most branches.