October 02, 2018      

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — One of the biggest challenges for the global robotics industry is explaining that workforce development and the adoption of robots aren’t in opposition, said several speakers at last week’s RoboBusiness conference here.

Executives at the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) spoke with Robotics Business Review about how their organizations are growing, the importance of workforce development, and how events such as RoboBusiness and the Collaborative Robots, Advanced Vision & AI Conference can help the industry.

A3 is the parent organization of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA — Advancing Vision + Imaging, the Motion Control and Motors Association (MCMA), and A3 Mexico.

“It’s a good time to be an association that represents the robotics industry,” said Bob Doyle, vice president of the RIA and A3 Mexico. “We reached the 500th member milestone in July. We continue to grow and reach new industries in robotics, as well as startups and service companies.”

Jeff Burnstein, president of A3

Automation is growing across industries, notes A3 President Jeff Burnstein.

“RoboBusiness is a great way to stay in touch with people I don’t normally see,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of A3 and a speaker at the conference. “There are lots of VCs [venture capitalists], researchers, and new companies.”

“I like seeing new technologies that are on the exhibit floor, and the topics and speakers,” Doyle said.

Growth and partnerships

“We recently hired our first employee based in Mexico,” said Doyle. “We’re engaging with current members and developing the robotics and automation ecosystem down there. The industry is small, but it’s continuing to grow, and there’s a lot of excitement.”

“We realized that we needed a separate organization to show our presence in Mexico. A3 Mexico will have more safety trainings this fall,” he said. “We also have many Canadian members.”

Last month, the RIA announced a partnership with MassRobotics, an organization devoted to helping companies in Massachusetts, a leading U.S. hub for automation development and commercialization.

To encourage the growth of global robotics, A3 also has a strong relationship with the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

“I’m on the executive board of the IFR,” explained Burnstein. “They provide the best data, and they’re helping to educate people on key trends globally — collaboration, AI, and the impact of automation on jobs.”

Integrators and reshoring

“Every integrator we talk to is way too busy; many are turning business away,” Doyle said. “They’re not going away anytime soon.”

The RIA’s Robotic Integrator Certification Program has grown to Mexico, Central America, Switzerland, and other companies in Europe.

As for reshoring, Burnstein disputed recent claims that automation hasn’t yet contributed to moving manufacturing back to the U.S. “Anecdotally, we’re seeing a lot of reshoring thanks to robotics,” he said.

“In order for any business to compete in the global marketplace, automation is imperative, especially if you’re bringing business back, starting fresh, or just growing a business in the U.S.,” Doyle asserted.

Workforce development and using tech to build skills

At RoboBusiness 2018, Burnstein participated in the closing panel on legal issues, safety concerns, and workforce development entitled “Safe vs. Safer: Is Public Perception on AI and Robotics Changing?

“There’s a mismatch in skills,” he said. “The issue for low unemployment is to get people to better jobs in manufacturing. Training is a big part of the equation, as is attracting them to industries that are not thought of as fashionable. Lots of people looking for work don’t have the right skills.”

“There’s a huge skills gap — the shortfall of 2 million manufacturing workers by 2025 is real,” he said. “People are talking about all types of workforce development programs, but what we’re not doing as a country is highlighting successful programs and replicating them.”

RoboBusiness 2018 Closing Keynote Panel workforce development article

Panelists at the closing session at RoboBusiness 2018 conference discuss workforce issues around robotics.

Burnstein cited RAMTEC (the Robotics Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Collaborative) in Ohio as an example of a successful workforce development program.

“They have the right model, working with companies in the area and filling real jobs that are open for people with certain skills,” he said. “We need more energy and focus on apprenticeships, and GM, Amazon, and the government are interested.”

“This came up at our Congressional Robotics Caucus — RAMTEC believes we could use new technologies such as VR and AR to speed up the training process,” Burnstein said. “It may be possible that, with some tools, you could become proficient with no experience or classroom training.”

“Companies still need someone to set up or operate a robot,” he said. “[Augmented reality] glasses could show where to open a door and manipulate equipment.”

“All this focus on STEM [science, technology, and mathematics] is really important, but it requires overhauling our educational system,” he said. “Technology could allow us to take people without a STEM background and who could take open jobs.”

Coming soon: CRAV.ai

The next event for A3 is the Collaborative Robots, Advanced Vision & AI Conference (CRAV.ai), which will be from Oct. 24 to 25, 2018, in Santa Clara, Calif.

“We did our first one last year in Silicon Valley, and there was a lot of interest in the topics,” Doyle recalled. “This year, we’re bringing in new speakers, and we’re adding a new track focused on AI and how it interacts with robots and vision.”

“It’s a great two days of learning, and we’re trying to reach end users to help them understand robotics, vision, and AI,” he said.

Note: Editor Keith Shaw contributed to this article.