Once feared by unions as a threat to job security, robots are now viewed by organized labor as a means for improving the quality of work life – and, ironically, protection against the movement of jobs offshore.
Time can do a lot to change attitudes, notes Donald Vincent, who recently retired after nearly 25 years of leading the Robotics Industry Association (RIA), an Ann Arbor, MI trade group that has grown to more than 250 member companies. “When I became executive vice president in 1983, many people thought robotics was going to be the next industrial revolution,” recalls Vincent. “There were wild projections about how fast the industry would grow and the massive job losses that would result – projections that hurt the industry.”
After a major downswing in the 1980s, when giants like GE, Bendix and IBM left the field, the industry not only has climbed back, but is now beginning to move beyond its initial roots in the auto industry. In an exclusive interview with Design News, Vincent gives his perspective on the past – and future – of the robotics industry.
Design News: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the robotics industry over the last quarter century?
Donald Vincent: Advancements in technology have to be the most significant change. While the robot that bolts to the factory floor may look the same, it is capable of doing far more complex jobs, with better sensing and vision capabilities. Overall, the equipment has become much more precise and agile. For example, vision-equipped robots can go into a bin and pick out specific parts, and robot painting now produces a very high quality finish on our cars. We are even seeing some small parts assembly by robots, which years ago was unheard of. Meanwhile, robot equipment has become much more affordable, which has increased the interest among potential customers.
A second key change is the growing sophistication of customers who are using robotics. In the early days, we heard a lot of doom and gloom talk. Some customers would say, “Don’t call this equipment robots, because it will scare the workers. There will be union problems and labor issues.” One auto company even insisted that the word “universal transfer device” be used in place of “robot” in all contracts. We don’t hear that kind of talk anymore. Users now have a much open attitude toward robotics and see this technology as a productivity tool. We have actually been able to document cases where use of robotics has helped keep a domestic plant in operation and preserve jobs, versus moving production offshore.
How does North America stack up against the rest of the world in robot installations?
Vincent: Japan is the clear leader, with 373,500 units installed, according to the most recent figures from the International Federation of Robotics. Because of labor shortages and the need to respond to its great industrial growth, robots became almost a necessity in Japan. Next comes Europe, with a total of 297,400 robots installed, followed by North America at 139,600 units. I have always laid the fact that the U.S. is not the leader at the feet of company management. Particularly in the early days, many good proposals for implementing robots were killed because management was inpatient to see the payback for investment in this equipment. In contrast, management in other countries seemed more willing to wait a bit longer for that payback. However, attitudes among management in North American are changing. Today, more companies view robotics as a productivity enhancer. Labor is also much more receptive, especially in cases where robots are taking over repetitive, dull and dangerous jobs.
Which industrial applications are in the forefront of implementing robotics?
Vincent: Automotive still accounts for more than 60 percent of robot installations, particularly in such areas as welding and painting. However, the future growth will be in applications beyond the auto industry. Some of the fast-growing areas include: the food industry, consumer goods and laboratory automation. Also quite strong is materials handling, where robots are used in packaging, palletizing and loading and unloading functions.
What are some of the emerging technical trends in factory robots?
Vincent: Probably the biggest trend relates to new safety standards. Companies are working on such innovations as wireless or cableless pendants for teaching robots, software-based robot limiting systems, and synchronized robot arms controlled by a single controller. Another safety device shown at our June International Robots and Vision Show in Chicago was a 3D camera system called “Safety-Eye,” designed to eliminate physical guards around robots, thereby saving space while still protecting workers. Other important trends include a much wider use of vision systems with robots and systems that allow multiple robots to work in unison. With vision systems, robots can now do small parts assembly, including circuit board manufacture.
What’s involved in the Next Generation Robot Initiative supported by RIA?
Vincent: Again, this is a long-term industry program aimed at designing robots that are inherently safe without the need for physical barriers or light curtains surrounding the equipment. Instead, built-in sensors, visions systems and sophisticated control systems will provide the needed safeguards. This will decrease the footprint of robots on factory floors.
How about the potential for growth of robot applications beyond the factory?
Vincent: There are many examples of this trend, and we need to be careful not to over-hype technologies like service robots. At our June show, we saw robots that can serve as companions and therapeutic helpers for the elderly. A company started by robotics pioneer Joseph Engelberger has designed robots that deliver pharmaceuticals on hospital floors. South Korea has a campaign to put a robot in every home, and iRobot has sold a couple million Roomba vacuuming robots. I got one as a gift, but, unfortunately, I had to put it away when it scared my dog. iRobot also is among the companies that have developed robots that are providing valuable service on the battlefield.
Google searches turn up new mobile applications of robots on a regular basis, such as fruit-picking robots. Red Whittaker’s group at Carnegie Mellon has developed a whole
series of these mobile or field robots, designed for such applications as exploring harsh environments on earth and in space. CMU is also among several teams competing in the Urban Challenge. Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the event, which is coming up in November, features autonomous ground vehicles conducting simulated military supply missions. And, of course, there have been some very impressive uses of robotics in medicine, such as the da Vinci surgical system, which assists surgeons in a number of procedures, including heart valve and prostate operations. Someday, we may see robots that provide elder care, ranging from helping a nursing home patient get out a bed to actually conversing with a patient.
What do you see as the biggest future challenges for the robotics industry?
Vincent: Perhaps the most important challenge is convincing small and medium-sized companies that there can get real benefits from investments in robotics. We tried to demonstrate this at the June Show with our “Hands-on Highway” exhibit, which was designed to show how easily robotic technology can be implemented. For a long time, our industry chased the large companies, but much of the future growth will come from these new markets. We also want to make sure that we don’t loose the lead we have in North America in developing the software needed for programming challenging new robot applications.