Manufacturers have made it clear: The future of manufacturing will include more technology, greater automation and an increased use of collaborative robots.
According to the Grand Rapids Business Journal, there are roughly 35,000 robots already being sold on an annual basis.
Each year, robots become cheaper to buy and operate and their abilities to perform more detailed tasks grows exponentially with implementations including camera systems and cloud technology.
Mark Lindquist, chairman of Rapid-Line in Wyoming, 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 the 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.
The Grand Rapids Business Journal said that for those worried about what added robots to the workforce would do for human workers, manufacturers have maintained there are still plenty of jobs available. The jobs will require high-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.”
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 mentioned that jobs for robot techs will continue to grow, attracting those who have a knack for robotics.
Cedric Duclos, president and CEO of Hutchinson North America, located in Grand Rapids, believes that not even the most advanced collaborative robots will 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.
“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,” Duclos added.
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.”