Do Cobots Replace People in Manufacturing?

Articles about automation in manufacturing, particularly robotics and collaborative robots, sometimes called “cobots,” appear frequently in the press. The headline message often is focused on eliminating jobs and replacing workers.Every time I hear someone mention that automation is replacing people, I start to fidget as I prepare for a debate. In Minnesota, we sometimes call this the “yeah-buttal.”We seem to have long forgotten that computers with spreadsheet, word processing and presentation software have replaced slide-rules, calculators, typewriters, transparency film and so on, as well as stenographers and others who used these low-tech tools. Thankfully. Of course, we use the computers, and we are much more productive. The combination of computer software and hardware might be considered a form of automation (as well as communication, entertainment and a host of other functions), and society has accepted this.

What is the purpose of automation? Is its goal to replace people? Consider the data. According to the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), the U.S. Industrial Production Index shows a continual rise in industrial production since the 1920s, notwithstanding the temporary recessionary blips in years such as 2009. Also, according to the Fed, U.S. manufacturing employment peaked around 1979 at nearly 20 million people, but since then has dropped to only a little more than 12 million in 2017. Again, according to FRED, production output per employee has literally doubled since 1990.However, a certain form of automation is frequently the poster child for those who want to focus not on the merits and necessity of automation, but on the resulting efficiency and productivity from automation of manual processes, and elimination of jobs: the robot.Let’s return to the question of whether a can eliminate jobs and whether the dynamic is different than any other form of automation. We’ve already indicated that direct labor reduction is one of several goals of automation in general, and the data shows increasing industrial output over the years, while

The scenario portrayed above is clear: U.S. manufacturers are producing more output with fewer workers. Depending on your perspective, that may not sound good. It may sound like a lot of unemployed folks. However, if all those people simply became unemployed, then the unemployment rate should have risen accordingly, and dramatically. Instead, the U.S. seasonally adjusted employment rates of 6% to 8% in the late 1970s have dropped to around 4% just prior to the recent COVID-19 period. So, yes, automation (and other factors) have enabled much higher levels of production output with fewer people, and I readily admit that reducing labor costs is indeed one of the goals.

Robots are not new. The earliest invention of what could be considered a robot was by George Devol of Louisville, KY, in the 1950s. He called the invention “Unimate,” short for “universal automation.” It was considered “universal,” because, unlike most machines that had a specific purpose, the Unimate could be outfitted and programmed to do many different jobs (although a far cry from truly “universal”). Devol was not successful commercially, but Joseph Engleberger purchased the patent in the 1960s and ultimately succeeded in deploying many robots under the brand “Unimation.” Since then, of course, many other firms globally have launched many other models, usually recognizable mostly due to their brand’s prominent signature color — often bright yellow, orange, blue or so on. These robots have been used increasingly along with machinery in all sorts of factories.By the way, we’re focusing here on , those used in manufacturing, but we’re also seeing robotic inventions in completely different contexts such as in vacuuming your floor. That’s another discussion entirely, although it’s probable that such proliferation will drive a higher level of societal acceptance of the poor, beleaguered robot.Why is the robot so often the target of such misguided criticism? Well, it has arms. Actually, it typically has just one arm, and in the industry is even sometimes simply called an “arm.” A robot arm is faster, more precise and usually stronger than a human arm (see Figure 1). It never gets tired, needs a bathroom break or calls in sick. It is programmed to do a specific, repetitive task, and typically requires little maintenance.Unfortunately, unlike a human, a robotic arm does not have eyes, although certain television shows and sci-fi movies did feature such human-like mechanical creatures, with legs even. (By way of disclosure, many robots do use vision guidance, although such hardware doesn’t attempt to mimic the appearance of a human, except for one misguided firm who actually marketed a robot with eyes on a display screen — they even blinked.)A real robot arm is typically fixed-mounted, either on the floor or on a pedestal or table, and programmed to follow a specific path — often quite rapidly and with a lot of mass driven by powerful servo motors, so you do not want to get in its way. Sometimes, such as in welding applications, the arm isn’t necessarily moving rapidly, but the operation itself is hazardous, so one would not want to be too close in these cases. For these and other reasons, the area in which the robot operates must be protected from human access while it is operating, and there are plenty of standards mandating this. Sometimes, the guarding is like a cage around just the robot and its operation, called a “robot cell.” Other times, as with spot-welding robots on an automotive assembly line, an entire area containing several robots working in concert is guarded to keep people out, and the line will cease to operate if a door to the area is opened, or if a scanner detects something/someone in the area that shouldn’t be there.

manufacturing employment has dropped in the same period. While I’m certainly a proponent of automation in general, I would posit that the collaborative robot is especially suited to reducing the number of people on the factory floor in a one-by-one basis — remove a person, replace with a robot. Why? If an employee is performing a repetitive task for many hours a day, it often is relatively easy to implement a collaborative robot in his or her place in a relatively short time frame due to the ease of programming and setup, and without all the guarding required by traditional robots. For these same reasons, the collaborative robot also is much more affordable (not just the cost of the robot, but the installed cost, which avoids much of the engineering time and “robot cell” hardware) and therefore more easily justified financially, so it simply follows that more of them are likely to be deployed.To be clear, we say it often is relatively easy to deploy a cobot, but certainly there are many applications where deployment of any kind of automation is challenging. Notable examples are where the product being manufactured or processed is either difficult to handle or is not very repeatable such as in clothing, where so much of its production has continued to move around the globe in search of the absolute lowest labor cost, or in meat processing, which (as of this writing) is often in the news due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The core reason for such outbreaks is the large number of workers, employed near each other as they perform their butchering duties on an irregular and complex “product.” There will likely be some success in increasing automation in these facilities — certainly, the motivation is there, but to date, such achievements have been elusive.A final point about using collaborative robots to reduce human labor — perhaps the best examples of successful deployment are in production facilities where there are multiple stations performing the same type of process such as in a machining facility with multiple . Consider a facility with 30 CNC machines cranking out automotive components (see Figures 2 and 3). Without robotics, you may need 20 employees to tend all the machines (keeping a supply of blanks, placing the blanks into the and then pulling them out afterward). With cobots deployed on the s, or at least most of them, the operation may require only 5 to 10 operators — a meaningful reduction in labor — and as a bonus, a safer operation from the social distancing standpoint.

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Radwell International is an award-winning global supplier of industrial automation and electronic control equipment parts and repair services