In 1701, Jethro Tull invented the seed drill, a machine that changed the world. By mechanizing the work of laborers, he was a major influence on the agricultural revolution. Displaced from the fields by machines, people flocked to growing cities where the industrial revolution, which was only just beginning, gave them work in newly built factories.

The growing robot population

Today a new revolution is underway, one where robots take on ever more factory work. First used mostly for automobile painting and welding, engineers are finding more applications for robots, and numbers are growing rapidly.

Figures from the International Federation of Robotics confirm this trend. They predict over 200,000 robot installations during 2014, a 13 percent increase on the 2013 numbers and a pattern that's expected to continue in the years ahead. By 2017, it's forecast there could be as many as 2 million robots in use around the world.

New robot applications

Robots are spilling out from auto assembly plants into electronics, machining, molding, food processing and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Tasks like picking objects from conveyors, trimming molded parts, packaging and assembly are all good robot applications, and as robots become more flexible they make economic sense for lower-volume operations.

Robots are emerging in other fields, too. Food processing is one, where robots are trimming carcasses and even decorating cakes. Janitorial tasks are being automated by robot vacuums and floor scrubbers, and robot lawnmowers are going mainstream.

Factors behind the growth

Machine vision technology is making robots smarter, giving them some basic situational awareness that reduces the need for dedicated part fixturing and bulky safety systems. This makes robot cells smaller and more affordable for lower-volume applications, but there are still constraints on where they can be used. As a result, robots are used mostly to automate repetitive, low-skill tasks.

In The Spotlight

Why are robots being used? There are four reasons:

Technological maturity. The application engineering skills base has reached a point where most robots are relatively easy to install.

Lower-volume applications. Before vision guidance robot cells needed expensive fixturing. Now, that cost is largely eliminated because robots can search for and find parts within their working envelope.

They save money. More experience combined with lower costs mean there are many more applications where robots can help manufacturers cut costs.

They increase capacity. Using a robot at a bottleneck operation lets a manufacturer maximize output and perhaps bid for larger orders.

Implications for competitiveness

As Thomas Friedman pointed out back in 2005, the world is “flat” and competition is global. In recent decades this meant manufacturing work flowed to the low-cost countries of Asia, but robots change the equation.

Raw materials cost the same around the world, and with a few local variations, energy costs the same, too. That leaves labor and distribution as the geography-dependent variables. Deploying robots for manufacturing removes labor as a component of cost and puts U.S. manufacturers on an equal footing with overseas competitors.

In fact, the biggest differentiator may well be distance to market. When it comes to serving their domestic market, shipping costs and delivery times give U.S. manufacturers a huge advantage.

Implications for labor

The growing automation of manual factory tasks parallels the experience of 18th-century farm laborers: those jobs will disappear, to be performed instead by machines. So what does that mean for the economy?

In the early 1700s, someone had to make the seed drill machines and the other equipment that followed behind, and they almost certainly had to sell and repair those machines. In other words, new jobs were created, but jobs requiring different skills.

The same is true of the robot revolution currently underway. The machines need to be designed and built (though little maintenance is needed), and the applications still need to be engineered, which means more work for engineers, toolmakers and programmers.

It's all about skills

The trend is clear: low-skill jobs will continue to disappear. They're being replaced by work that requires more intellect and creativity. The message for those in the workforce or in school is clear: develop your skills, because they will be essential as this latest revolution gathers pace.


Bob Goossens
About The Author Bob Goossens
Bob Goossens is Chief Operating and Technology Officer for Acieta. The firm specializes in industrial robotics automation with the objective of helping American manufacturing to be globally competitive and thrive for decades to come.

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