Contrary to popular belief, automation isn’t on the verge of wiping out millions of jobs. U.S. unemployment is at historic lows, even as multiple industries increase their adoption of robots. In fact, many manufacturers are contending with shortages of human resources, and robots can help HR with retention and workforce development, said Simon Whitton, senior vice president at KUKA AG.
“We’re at about 3% unemployment in the U.S., but with low birthrates, we can’t fill many of these jobs,” he told Robotics Business Review. “Robots are extremely good at repetitive, high-speed movement, but they’re not good at making decisions about what needs to be done.”
Robots for HR retention
Many people may still think of factory jobs as dull, dirty, and dangerous work, which is ideally suited to automation. However, robots can relieve human workers of the worst tasks, enabling them to get more satisfaction from value-added challenges that require human input. As a result, higher morale makes it easier to recruit and retain talent, said Whitton.
“I’ve talked with HR people at plants who are struggling to find new labor,” he said. “I used to live in China, where Foxconn invested heavily in automation. While it took staffers away from unrewarding tasks, it was also a good example of why you need to figure out what robots are good at and what people are good at.”
Safety and collaborative robots
Precision welding and moving heavy materials are examples of things that robots can do better and more consistently than humans. Forklifts are involved in numerous industrial injuries and fatalities.
“Collaborative robots are another way to automate tasks,” Whitton said. “They’re a way for people to be near a robot without a fence. As the technology advances, the distance between people and robots is shrinking.”
“The benefits of a fully enclosed process can be brought together very quickly with robot-human relationships,” he added. “Manufacturers want to work at speeds that are best for the operation, but they have to be cognizant of the risks. In the same way that other robots have evolved over time, such as by application, so will cobots. It’s more of an elevation of safety.”
Cobots involve tradeoffs between speed and safety, but as Veo Robotics and others have shown, sensors can be applied to industrial systems to make them more collaborative.
“When you can work with long-reach robots or heavy-lift robots and still have people moving around in the environment, people will look at processes differently,” noted Whitton. “For example, KUKA’s roller coaster robot is safe in the way it monitors itself and the operating parameters.”
“The real cost of robotics is coming down — things that didn’t make financial sense 15 years ago now do,” asserted Whitton. “It’s not just the cost of robots coming down, but the cost of the conventional ways of making things is also going up. Nobody today would conceive of making a car without robots.”
“As more applications come along, people are saying, ‘You know what, I can do this with a robot.'” he said. “Robots are going into operating rooms, the food industry, everywhere. All manufacturers are looking for step changes, where processes will get faster and reach a tipping point for accelerating automation.”
“There have been a lot of “HR conversations about robotics in harvesting, but if we talk about food processing and packaging, we see a fair bit of automation,” Whitton said. “There are health and cleanliness issues with having too many people handling things, but more and more can be automated, even without going into the unstructured world.”
“There are other areas in manufacturing beyond automotive and food where robotics adoption will accelerate,” he said. “For example, medical devices are a mix of electronics, plastics, assembly, and packaging. It has a high-mix, low-volume aspect, and large parts of production are not yet done by robots. We’re not far from a technology shift that will make this less of an HR problem.”
Aging workforce and mobile manipulation
In the industrialized world, HR departments have found that Baby Boomers are looking to stay active while no longer doing physical jobs such as packing on the shop floor. Robots can create an environment where the experience of older workers is put to use in supervisory roles, extending their effectiveness and careers.
Mobile manipulation, which combines industrial robots or cobots and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), could also augment human effectiveness, said Whitton. “If you think of the five stages of human-robot collaboration, the sixth stage is mobile, having collaboration occur anywhere you want it to.”
“Mobility is underplayed at the moment. We haven’t yet figured out how to maximize the benefit of mobile platforms,” he said. “It’s not just picking something up and putting it down somewhere else, but carrying the robot from one point to another.”
KUKA’s iiwa cobot is typically mounted on a worktable in manufacturing environments, but it could be useful for order fulfillment when paired with an AMR, Whitton said.
“For bin picking, you’d be able to load a machine directly from a mobile platform and then unload it,” he said. “Instead of linear tracks, you could configure the work area how you wanted, as long as the robot could move and still receive work orders.”
KUKA already has customers for a mobile version of iiwa, and the company is working on a larger mobile platform. A 2-ton payload capacity would be useful, not just for carrying robot arms, but also in manufacturing environments, Whitton said.
Promoting understanding of how robotics can help HR
“I’m a realist and an industrialist. In 2020, I’d like to see a much clearer understanding of how Industry 4.0 and IoT [the Internet of Things] benefit the majority of American industry,” Whitton said. “When I talk to SMEs [small and midsize enterprises], the heartbeat of American manufacturing, they hear at conferences about how robotics can relieve HR pressures.”
“But they’re not really clear on how it applies to them, and what aspects they can use to make things more transparent,” he added. “Automation needs to break it down to, for example, connected devices — what advantages will I get from that? What will I be able to modify?”
“I really hope that when we have this conversation next year, we’ll have a clearer picture about automation and HR that manufacturers will want to use,” concluded Whitton. “Rather than tell people about digital twins and simulation, the industry can make it meaningful for SMEs.”