HURON, OHIO - Go on, touch the robot.
That's what engineering manager Tom Borro told every worker at an auto supplier factory to do when the first of six "collaborative" robots arrived last year. The idea, he said, was to make assembly line employees comfortable with their newest, mechanical colleagues known colloquially as co-bots.
The Universal UR10 robot's task is both simple and repetitive: pick up flimsy insulation pads known as shoddy; transfer them to a machine to be inserted into a door panel; then move the panel to a human worker for inspection.
It's no Terminator. Bolted to the floor with a single, swinging arm, the UR10 stands less than 6 feet tall and can lift only up to 22 pounds.
"I think people were scared to get close to it," says 67-year-old Phyllis Aslinger, an inspector on the line assembling door panels at the International Automotive Components' plant about halfway between Toledo and Cleveland on Lake Erie for nearly 28 years. A robot replaced her coworker, she says, "but I’m not afraid" of being rapped or rousted by the co-bot.
Aslinger is hardly alone. Robots are descending on industrial workplaces in record numbers.
North American robotics companies posted the strongest ever first-quarter results earlier this year, according to the Robotic Industries Association, the industry’s trade group. The Ann Arbor-based trade association estimates that 250,000 robots are now in use in the U.S., the third highest in the world behind Japan and China. Online superstore Amazon, for example, reportedly has more than 125,000 full-time workers in its U.S. fulfillment center network — and 100,000 robots worldwide.
More robots are taking their place directly next to human workers. Barclays Equity Research analysts calculate that global sales of co-bots — un-sequestered robots that work within inches of humans — alone reached approximately $120 million in 2015. They expect the market to explode to $3.1 billion in sales by 2020 and $12 billion by 2025.
Across the U.S. landscape, industrial robots are landing unevenly. So far, Detroit has been the biggest target.
Metro Detroit has more more than 15,000 industrial robots in place or 8½ for every 1,000 workers, according to a Brookings Institution study published this summer. That's almost five times the number of any other major U.S. city.
Michigan plus Ohio are home for one of every five industrial robots in the U.S. More than half of the nation’s 233,305 industrial robots are welding, painting, assembling, handling or packaging in just 10 auto-centric states in the Midwest and South, according to Brookings.
The rise of robots is a "mixed development. It clearly prompts anxiety among workers but also delivers competitiveness and productivity for companies," said Mark Muro, a Brookings senior fellow who authored the report. The immediate future, he said in an interview, is likely to be a combination of human workers amid automation and not a "lights out" factory devoid of people entirely.
Employers praise how robots help boost productivity and reduce accidents and injuries.
When Thomas J. Swartz, IAC's director of manufacturing engineering, strategies and standards, looks to develop new robots for the company's plants, his Southfield-based team focus on tasks that are "dirty, dull and dangerous," he said.
A global supplier headquartered in Luxembourg with a major outpost in Southfield, IAC has more than 24,000 employees in 20 countries. The company supplies all of the major car companies with cockpits, instrument panels, flooring and acoustics amounting to $6 billion in sales last year globally.
Introducing additional robots "gives us a more consistent cost basis," Carl Beckwith, IAC's president for North America, said. "The nice thing about the co-bot is that they always will be there. There is savings to pay for the capital investment." Company officials said the Huron plant's productivity grew by 6% to 8% thanks to its new cobots.
Robots also reduce workers' exposures to some of the most hazardous environments in the auto industry, including contact with potentially toxic chemicals in the paint shop and elsewhere, said Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, professor of medicine at Michigan State University and chief of its division of occupational and environmental medicine.
IAC's workforce has only been minimally affected by robots at four plants in Michigan, Ohio and Mexico, company officials said. Overall demand for cars and trucks as well as production levels at automakers play a larger role in recent reductions in employment, they said.
Workers replaced by robots are more likely to have been temporary employees or permanent employees who were then reassigned to more detailed jobs such as cutting and sewing handcrafted details. That said, new research is raising concerns about how many people robots ultimately put out of work.
M.I.T. and Boston University researchers earlier this year estimated that adding one robot per 1,000 workers has led to unemployment for up to six workers. It has also depressed wages by up to one-half of 1% between 1990 and 2007 in findings that have attracted some critics. Robots are now coming after other jobs staffed by the more skilled and educated workers, according to the 2015 nonfiction bestseller, "Rise of the Robots."
University researchers are trying to teach robots to grab stuff they have never seen before, which could be a significant evolution for manufacturing and lead to further job losses. New robots come with "eyes" designed to allow them to scan parts for defects, once the purview of human sight.
Unions say they're closely watching the potential impact on workers. The Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research just started a new study into robotics adoption in lower levels of the supply chain, according to Kristin Dziczek, the center's group director for industry, labor and economics.
That's thanks in part to dropping prices for new robots. IAC's Beckwith said robots that were $70,000 a few years ago range between $25,000 to $50,000 today.
Reduced regulations allow factories to drop some of the protective cages that once encased robots and kept them far from human workers. Now, some co-bots can work alongside assembly line workers, armed with motion-sensor technology and warning lights that make them slow down or even stop moving when a human gets too close.
State records show injuries and deaths related to robots are few and far between. But auto parts factory robot technician Wanda Holbrook, a 57-year-old Grand Rapids woman, died in 2015 after a robot's arm malfunctioned, hitting and crushing her head. Holbrook's husband filed an ongoing federal wrongful death suit against five robotics companies in March, claiming the accident was because of negligence by those who designed, built, tested and monitored the robots at Ionia-based Ventra Ionia.
IAC workers in Huron, about a two-hour drive from Detroit, said the robot integration has been smooth so far with no injuries reported. Managers hope eliminating this kind of tedious task now handled by robots could also help reduce one of the plant's most common and costly medical issues: repetitive strain injuries
In one head-to-head competition pitting a robot-aided assembly line against a human-only one, the people-populated line kept it neck and neck, according to Borro, the engineering manager.
But "we’d be lying if we said we weren’t concerned," says Steven Ball, a 48-year-old plant inspector who has toiled at IAC for 24 years.
Adds Aslinger: "It’s the way of the future."
Ball says his wife initially voiced concerns when a robot joined his assembly line.
"IAC is going to do what they need to do to protect themselves and be competitive," he said in a recent interview. "As long as we have jobs, that’s what we’re concerned about."
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