Robots, Labor Issues are Top of Mind at Pittsburgh Thrival Festival

Image: Ray Linsenmayer

September 23, 2019      
Ray Linsenmayer

PITTSBURGH – Robotics is the hippest growth sector in America, at least to the participants at this year’s annual Thrival Festival, held recently here. Between listening to musical performers and attending art exhibitions, attendees spent time listening to cutting-edge robotics industry leaders talk about the opportunities in manufacturing, and obstacles that still need to be overcome.

A big driver of robotics growth that they all agreed on is the growing labor shortage in the manufacturing industry. According to a recent study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, as many as 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled between now and 2028. Robotics and automation are among the strategies that manufacturers are planning to employ to reduce this gap where applicable, says Suzy Teele of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute.

Another speaker at the event, IAM Robotics President Joel Reed, agreed: “One of the big issues for us is the labor shortage.” People are retiring, and there are lots of jobs that humans would rather not do, he said.

Big expectations

However, “sometimes, people make the mistake of thinking that robots can do too much,” Reed said.

Thrival Festival robotics Pittsburgh

The Thrival Festival in Pittsburgh included robotics discussion among music performances and art displays. Image: Ascender

Jared Glover, the CEO and co-founder of CapSen Robotics, has also experienced this. “People think robots are more capable than they actually are. They think they can do anything.” Robots don’t just come out of the box picking things out of bins. “You need human expertise to make the robot arms do all the things they want,” Glover said.

Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2 Robotics, noted that “the entire infrastructure of this planet is designed by humans for humans, and we are trying to replicate this in robots. Pedersen explained that robots need to be able to operate in cramped areas, since not all manufacturing happens in large spaces. “The fusion of computer vision and AI are helping to make this a reality.”

Small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses are driving a lot of the innovation in the sector. “They have different challenges,” said Glover. “Their batches are smaller and they have lots of them.” They therefore can’t afford to build million dollar lines, and often “want things that have never been done before.” A spring factory, for example, he said, “wanted a robot that could pick up hooks in a uniform way. This is something that a two-year old can do, but it is cutting edge for robots.”

Increased consumer demand

This innovation can also be seen in the way that rapidly evolving supply chains are driving new designs. “Consumers spend 40 billion hours a year going to the store, buying things, and coming home,” explained Reed. “Next year, 16 to 17% of these sales will be done online and by phone,” a significant increase from this year. He said retailers won’t have enough people to fulfill all of these orders in the timeframes required.

Retail customers are increasingly demanding robots with “autonomous manipulation,” that can both go to where an item is located and also select that item, said Reed. This is what enables retailers like Amazon to sort products more quickly, and therefore offer a wider variety of products. He said a lot of Amazon’s ability to scale is driven by autonomous mobile robots, and that “Amazon is one of the key drivers demanding more robotics technologies.”

“Robots have to first be able to know what they are looking for,” said CapSen’s Glover. They aren’t yet able to “understand what a clear plastic bag is,” for example. This can be an especially big issue for something like apparel, which is often in plastic bags and stacked vertically. This is a “continuing technical problem that we’re all facing.”