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What is holding back a full “Robot Revolution” in US Manufacturing? MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future asked that question and found some interesting reasons. For years, we have been told that the robots were coming, but walk into most manufacturing facilities today, you will not see as many robotics systems as expected (or needed).
Some large manufacturers are indeed making investment in what could be considered as “lights out” operations, however others are much more hesitant to invest in robotics and automation. Even as many manufacturing firms looking to re-shore production back to the States, the big push to make the investment in robots on the production floor is just not there yet.
Costs a Concern
The reason, especially among small and medium-enterprises (SMEs), may in part be a concern by SME manufacturing leaders that they do not have the trained workforce in place to optimally make use of robotics systems. The cost of obtaining the trained workforce, on top of expenditures for robotic systems themselves, makes the total investment too much to justify.
While larger firms can absorb the costs of both the robot application itself and the training of their team members, SMEs often cannot, and therefore do not make the investment in either the workforce or robotics systems. So what can be done? Do we make public investments in the workforce and hope that SMEs hire from that pool of workers? What ensures that the workers are trained on what the SMEs need?
Most CEOs and policy makers agree that for US manufacturing to compete globally, more robotics and automation must be introduced. However, workers must be able to utilize robotics systems to their fullest extent before the cost / benefit tradeoffs make business sense.
The Growing Productivity Gap
In the United States, SMEs represent 98.4% of all manufacturing firms, and they employ 43% of all the manufacturing workers according to the US Census. These SMEs are falling behind their larger manufacturing counterparts when it comes to productivity. The MIT team pointed out that in the 1970’s, productivity by large firms was only 22% higher than that of SMEs. However by 2012, the productivity gap had jumped to 96%. If the larger firms are the only ones investing heavily in robotics and automation, this gap will only continue to grow.
What the MIT team noticed in their multiple year study was larger firms not only added more robotics and automation to their facilities, but grew their head counts at the same time. Conversely, very few SMEs added robotics to their operations.
This is not to say that SMEs did not upgrade their manufacturing technologies or increase their workforce. Many of them made investments in technology like CNC machines while adding head counts. However, over the course of their study the MIT team saw very few robots introduced into SME manufacturing sites.
When SMEs were asked by the MIT researchers about what skills they looked for in potential employees, most of them did not stress a specific certification or degree, but emphasized soft skills such as “showing up for work on-time” and having a “work ethic.”
SMEs cited many reasons in addition to direct costs for not making the investment in robotics. Some cited was how difficult it was to repurpose and reprogram the robot for other tasks after the initial deployment. Most SMEs were high mix/low production shops, and they needed flexibility to pivot quickly from job to job.
Unless these companies had a long term / high volume production runs, they could not justify the expense of the robot. These companies understood that the robots themselves account for only about a quarter of the total deployment cost when other items like end effectors, sensors, safety items, installation costs, and then training costs are added in. So if the SME could figure out ways to control repurposing costs, the argument for more robots in their operations could start to make more sense.
Soft Skill and On-the-Job Training
When SMEs were asked by the MIT researchers about what skills they looked for in potential employees, most of them did not stress a specific certification or degree, but emphasized soft skills such as “showing up for work on-time” and having a “work ethic.” If a candidate had those soft skills, the employer felt that could train them for what the company needed. This was not to say they would not seek out people that had experience using a specific piece of equipment, either through direct experience or trade school courses, it was just that “pieces of paper” were becoming less important to them.
The MIT team also found a growing frustration by SMEs with their local community colleges, and how pointless the Associate degrees were for their needs. The owner of a metalworking firm did not mince words in his assessment of his local technical college:
“They have beautiful CNC and welding equipment, but they don’t really train anyone… We tried to get them into older machining equipment, but no one was interested. They’re too busy with flashy stuff like 3D printing. But we’re in mass production. I can’t even make tooling less expensive with additive manufacturing. I don’t need kids trained on 3D printing.”
This skills disconnect between academia and employers is nothing new. There have been many calling for academia to better engage with potential employers, as well as teach relevant skills.
It is also clear that individuals will have numerous “jobs” over the course of their lifetime, even if they do stay with the same company. Lifelong learning will be the new norm as technology keeps advancing and as new services and products are created. The “piece of paper” that you earn from any institution will now be more like a car the moment you drive it off the lot. It will start depreciating in value, because what you learned then will not be relevant in the next few years. One will always need to be updating their skill sets.
This rapid changing need to reskill workers has forced many SMEs to bring their training in-house and do more on-the-job training. As one manager stated, if the candidate has “basic math skills, basic aptitude and attitude, and people who show up on time and play well with others,” he can train them on what is needed by the company. So what role does academia now play when it comes to workforce development for manufacturers?
Some SMEs have been successful in teaming with their local academic institutions to build programs that work for them. There are some alliances like the Alliance for Working Together Foundation that have had success in working with institutions to develop programs that better align with their member companies. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these types of alliances across the country for all of the SMEs to align with local academics to address their workforce issues.
“Out Automated” By Other Countries
The growth of installed robots in the US has slowed over the years. From 2017 to 2019, the US went from 200 robots installed per 10,000 workers in the manufacturing industry to 228. That is only 14% growth over 2 years. Compare this to South Korea, which already led the US and the rest of the world, where robot installations grew at 20% over the same time period. More concerning was China’s robot density growing at 93% using the same criteria.
If the goal by US policy makers is to re-shore manufacturing jobs, getting “outautomated” by other countries will make re-shoring an uphill fight. To re-shore jobs, US manufacturers must invest more in robotics to make their operations more productive. In addition, the productivity gap between large manufacturing firms and SMEs must shrink.
As stated earlier, manufacturing SMEs in the US make up almost 99% of the manufacturing firms in country and nearly half of the employment. If the US is to move the robot install needle and shrink the productivity gap, it must take place at the SME level, with the possible support by the US government.
The MIT researchers found that those companies that participated in these types of manufacturing initiatives received support in key areas like workforce development, and also connected with other SMEs in the program building support ecosystems in the process.
Workforce Development Programs
Countries like Germany and China have developed national strategic plans to support their manufacturing sector, especially SMEs, to assist them with investment in automation and robotics. These plans include employment policies and programs around workforce development.
The US has numerous manufacturing development programs at both the Federal and State level. Examples include Manufacturing USA and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) in the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Industry groups, such as the the Alliance for Working Together Foundation,also promote manufacturing.
The MIT researchers found that those companies that participated in these types of manufacturing initiatives received support in key areas like workforce development, and also connected with other SMEs in the program building support ecosystems in the process. However, the MIT team also found that the vast majority of SME manufacturers did not participate in them. It is critical for manufacturers to involve themselves with manufacturing related alliances and partnership, and create new ones when necessary.
Avoiding Stationary Robots
The MIT research provided some great insights into what is holding back SMEs from making the investment in robotics. SMEs still see making an investment in robotics as a risky proposition. Unless they have a large production order that is going to put the robot into use for a long time, they simply cannot justify all of the costs associated with the systems – including the training costs. There is a strong fear that the robot will become a paper weight after the job it was initially bought for ends. A stationary robot is not making money for anyone.
When it comes to workforce development efforts, there must be training on how employees can quickly repurpose the robot for new tasks. Training should go beyond robot programming to also include developing new end effectors, resetting sensors and guarding, and even knowing how to perform risk assessments. Understanding Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) options, along with RaaS business models, is also critical. These skills, and all others associated with reprogramming and redeploying robotics systems, must be be part of future workforce development efforts.
We must also have more flexible training programs that allow SMEs to quickly train their team members not only on new robot deployments, but also on how to redeploy robots quickly on other tasks on the production floor. With the rise of online learning, there are definitely ways to do much of this training remotely and therefore make it national in scope. Many employees interviewed by the researchers listed YouTube as one of their go-to places to learn new skills for their jobs..
Overcoming Adoption Reluctance
The MIT research team did a great job of discovering what is holding back SME manufacturers from deploying robotics and automation technologies. To increases the adoption levels of robotics and automation, workforce development support must be in place and acted on. Ongoing workforce development and training will improve productivity for both SME and large manufacturers, and as such will do much to overcome robotics and automation adoption reluctance due to cost.
Editors Note: Robotics Business Review would like to thank Aaron Prather for permission to publish this piece (lightly edited). The original can be found HERE. All views, thoughts, and opinions expressed therein belong solely to the author.
About the Author
With nearly 25 years at FedEx, Aaron Prather has developed and deployed numerous technology applications across the FedEx enterprise. In his current role as Senior Advisor, Technology Planning & Research, Prather leads efforts to find and deploy new technologies into FedEx operations, including robotics and automation. He sits on the company’s Operations Technology Council which coordinates efforts across all of the FedEx companies.
Outside of FedEx, Aaron participates in developing robot standards at the RIA and UL. Through the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis, he works with universities and colleges in the development of educational programs for the next generation of technologists in logistics. Prather received an MBA from Christian Brothers University, and holds a BS from University of Memphis in Geographic Information Science and Cartography.
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