Rapid-Line uses the Baxter brand of collaborative robots to perform 2-D and 3-D inspections on parts. Courtesy Baxter
The message from manufacturers throughout this past year has been clear: The future of manufacturing will include more technology, greater automation and an increased use of collaborative robots.
There are roughly 35,000 robots already being sold on an annual basis.
These robots are becoming cheaper to buy and operate each year, and their abilities to perform more detailed tasks are growing with the implementation of camera systems and cloud technology.
Mark Lindquist, chairman of Rapid-Line, 1475 Gezon Parkway SW, Wyoming, which offers metal fabrication services primarily for the office furniture and auto industries, said his company has 150 employees and 13 robots, two of which are Baxter brand collaborative robots, and he expects the number of robots to continue to grow.
“We will continue to upgrade our technology, particularly in bending, because we have nine press breaks and only one that is automated. So, we will get more automated press breaks,” he said.
He noted, right now, Rapid-Line’s robots cost the company $4 an hour and are able to do some of the most redundant and low-level tasks with greater consistency than their more expensive human counterparts.
“We started adding robotics in the area of inspection, which is kind of a boring job,” Lindquist said.
He said robots using lasers are able to perform 2-D and 3-D inspections on parts, far exceeding what the human eye can do.
“You don’t have to worry about human errors,” he said.
For those worried what the new robotic workforce will do to human workers, manufacturers maintain there still will be plenty of jobs available, but they will require higher-level thinking, and therefore, more education.
“There are not that many jobs that can be 100-percent automated,” Lindquist said. “You need people to do certain things.”
In fact, Lindquist said he believes only 5 percent of manufacturing jobs can be completely automated, leaving a need for plenty of human workers in the manufacturing sector.
He also said jobs for robot techs will continue to grow, and those jobs pay an average of $52,000-55,000 a year, a wage he expects will appeal to plenty of students with a knack for robotics.
Cedric Duclos, president and CEO of Hutchinson North America, 460 Fuller Ave. NE, Grand Rapids, which develops, engineers and manufactures noise/vibration/harshness systems for the automotive industry, agrees robots — even the most advanced collaborative robots — will not lead to the extinction of the manufacturing workforce. Instead, he said they will lead to job openings in other areas of manufacturing, including for positions that don’t currently exist but will be created as a result of the technology.
“The nature of the business is changing, a lot of operations that were manual are no longer manual, but we’ve significantly grown our employment base since 2008,” Duclos said. “We see it as an asset to increase competitiveness. Then you will grow your business. A lot of jobs require human skills you can’t reproduce.”
He said Hutchinson is implementing robots to alleviate repetitive, non-value added tasks, which instead allows the company to focus more of its workforce on “more complex tasks, keeping the businesses here and increasing competitiveness.”
“Those tasks today wouldn’t be in the United States,” he said. “They’d be exported to other countries due to labor costs; that is the easy way to do it. Or, you can find a business model to use automation for low added value operations.”
Duclos said increased use of automation and robotics actually is what is allowing factories to stay in the United States in the first place and continue to generate jobs here, even if they are not at the levels they once were before globalization occurred.
“I look at it as a complement to our technological abilities,” he said. “Instead of offshoring jobs, we focus on the value added task and instead of having to offshore low value added operations, we move that to robotics, which means at the end, people gain because we keep the factories here.”
Like Lindquist, Duclos pointed to quality inspection as a key area for implementing robotics.
“When it comes to quality controls that the human eye cannot catch, you’ve increased the quality of your product to a level where you couldn’t have reached with purely human operations, and you are gaining new business where human skills and the ability to analyze a problem are needed. That generates more of those tasks that you cannot replace.
“Robots can’t think analytically, yet,” he added.
Although, he noted that will likely come, pointing to IBM’s work with Watson. But for now, human intelligence outperforms robotic cognitive ability.
Hutchinson has been implementing collaborative robots around the world, particularly at its facility in Poland, where it introduced Cobot brand robots to support business for Mando, a Korean Tier 1 Hyundai platform.
The company is preparing to bring several Cobot robots to its Grand Rapids plant in the early part of 2017.
“Once we have developed a system we are satisfied with, we can roll out very easily in the rest of the world and that gives us the ability to standardize our methodology when it comes to technology, so there are economies of scale,” Duclos explained. “It’s going to be rolled out here in early 2017.
“Because we started with Europe, we will have 10 there by the end of the year, and here, it’s going to follow the same course.”
Duclos said Hutchinson is very focused on its smart plant concept.
“We are really at a transformational point in terms of manufacturing technology,” he said. “A lot of new technologies are coming that are transforming the way we are looking at our business.
“It’s very important to understand that it’s not pure adaptation. You have to reshape your operating system when it comes to how you comprehend manufacturing. You have to think from Day 1, from conception, to the finished product, to the mass production stage, how you revisit the whole process. It’s not just tweaking and upgrading. It’s really a different vision.”
Lindquist said he sees several advances in what robots will be able to do on the shop floor that are just around the corner.
“Fifty percent of the world’s robots are doing spot welding right now, mainly in the auto industry,” he said, “because the dependability of the welding operation is so much better than a person.
“One of the biggest opportunities for robots in the coming future will be fiber laser welding, which can do welding down to 1 millimeter,” he said.
He also said vision systems are improving what robots can do and collaboration between robots allows for learning, which improves what can be accomplished, as well.
“Robots can work together doing operations A and B,” he said. “By doing similar types of operations and learning, they get smarter. One could do the preliminary steps and then the other is doing the final assembly.”
He said high tech camera systems allow robots to identify the right part out of 1,000 similar looking parts in a bin and to figure out at which orientation to remove the part from the bin most efficiently.
Lindquist said people should continue to expect robotic advancements in inspection, vision, assembly, material handling and offline programming.
“Robots are coming whether you like it or not,” he said.
Duclos agrees, “The future is higher technology, which means better quality, safer work environments — most likely cleaner — and operators that have increased skills and are more involved in driving certain portion of the process versus doing more repetitive roles with less value added.”