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Robots, Re-shoring and America’s Manufacturing Renaissance
Through downsizings, layoffs and economic disaster, American productivity has excelled. Until now. According to the Labor Department, productivity grew last year  at the slowest pace in nearly a quarter century, after rising sharply in 2010. USA Today suggests that the “decline in productivity could be good news for jobseekers. It could show that companies are struggling to squeeze more output from their workers and must hire to meet rising demand.”
If lagging productivity is melded together with the “reshoring” movement back from China, job seekers could be doubly happy at the employment picture that is slowly coming into focus in front of them.
The net-net for the current U.S. jobs dilemma indicated in Made in America, Again is that domestic employment will rise by 2 to 3 million new jobs, shaking off one to two points from the dismal U.S. unemployment rate. That’s if, as some suggest, that the new jobs go to humans and not to robots, which has already raised fears with many jobseekers and has been well featured in all sorts of ongoing online, broadcast and print media.
The fears are natural but unfounded, contends Henrik Christiansen , director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Institute of Technology. He cites the 2011 Metra Martech market research that claims that the robotics industry will create one million new jobs; robots and humans will be manufacturing things “together” for a long time to come.
Workforce development is job one!
Rodney Brooks, founder of both iRobot and, most recently, Heartland Robotics, likens the arrival of robots in the workplace to that of the PC, saying in an Economist interview that, “the PC didn’t get rid of office workers, it changed the tasks.” He goes on to say that if people on the factory floor or in workshops are provided with easy-to-use robots they can become more productive. Bring together these new robots with innovative manufacturing technologies, and you could get a manufacturing renaissance.
As the PC changed tasks, new skills were necessary to perform those tasks. In short, as with the PC evolution, learning needs to take place for robots and humans to be successful together. Thus, as robots change tasks on the factory floor, factory workers will need to gain expertise in assisting those new tasks.
New learning seems to be at the core of both innovating robotic technology and innovating workers in the workplace. “A wide array of skills is necessary to develop these robotics systems,” says Jon Bornstein, manager of the Army Research Laboratory’s Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance, in IEEE’s Today’s Engineer. “Hardware, software, actuation, mobility in complex environments, mechanical engineering, power, control…all of those will be wrapped up in robotics.”
The Economist makes the case that, “Manufacturing will still need people, if not so many in the factory itself. All these automated machines require someone to service them and tell them what to do. Some machine operators will become machine minders, which often calls for a broader range of skills…Industrial robots are getting better at assembly, but they are expensive and need human experts to set them up (who can cost more than the robot). They have a long way to go before they can replace people in many areas of manufacturing.”
Gerry Dick concurs: “The best equipment and most novel business strategies are useless without workers who can adapt and succeed in a complex, fast-paced environment. Human capital makes the difference.” But he quickly notes, “Today, half of our manufacturing workers are older than 45, and 8,000 Baby Boomers turn 60 every day across the U.S. Workforce development is job one…”
The tipping point: a new generation of robots
The tipping point for U.S. companies looking homeward again and deciding on a return is automation via a new generation of robots that are hiring on at all sorts of new manufacturing and agricultural venues—places far different from their well-known employment haunts at auto plants. Robots are now working in such previously robot-less environments as meat processing, furniture making, farming, aircraft production, warehousing and mining—as well as robot-only manufacturing like Canon’s camera facilities. They’re even in households and hospitals, and incredulously, washing heads in beauty salons.
These dexterous, HRI-friendly robots present new possibilities at innovating most any process, and innovative minds are taking them up on it and challenging them with ever more. A human-robot culture is arising because of it; a culture of interaction and familiarity whereby humans will first think robots when seeking an automation solution to manufacturing.
One of their kind, the 3D printer (a particularly American invention), is already ballyhooed as the next Internet-type juggernaut to change the world; the likes of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Motley Fool…as well as Jay Leno (makes auto parts with it in his garage) are heralding it as robotics’ first mega industry. See:Swamped By Demand, 3D Printers Hit The Market.
Motley Fool has been enthusiastically shouting about 3D printing for some time: “Say Goodbye to ‘Made-In-China’. And say hello to the breakthrough technology that’s launching a 21st-century industrial revolution right here in America. Business Insider calls it ‘the next trillion dollar industry.’” Hyperbole? Maybe. Maybe not. The advent of 2D color printers was attended by similar fanfare.
The American renaissance in manufacturing is indeed on the way. When it arrives, it’ll be the first industrial revolution where robots played a decisive role.
Full article can be found at Robotics Trends.