Robots Create Jobs, Enable Small Companies to Compete Worldwide

  • February 08, 2013
  • Feature

February 2013

By Bill Lydon, Editor

International Federation of Robotics (IFR) CEO Roundtable 2013

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) provided a review of industry growth and hosted the IFR CEO Round Table discussion at AUTOMATE in Chicago on 22 January 2013. Gudrun Litzenberger opened the event and introduced IFR President, Dr. Shinsuke Sakakibara, Managing Counselor of FANUC CORPORATION.  Dr. Sakakibara provided opening remarks and introduced IFR Executive Board Member John Dulchinos, President and CEO, Adept Technology, USA. The IFR is the primary resource for world-wide data on the use of robotics and is the sponsor of the annual International Symposium on Robotics (ISR).

Industry Review – Robot Sales Increased 35%+

Dulchinos presented highlights of the latest industry research, initiated by the IFR and conducted by London based Metra Martech Market Research Company. The study researched the impact of robots on employment in various manufacturing industries including automotive, electrical & electronics, food & beverage, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, rubber & plastics, metalworking, and foundries. Robot sales grew more than 35% in 2011 - the most successful year in 50 years. The sales of robots in 2011 was led by China with growth of more than 51%, followed by the United States 43%+ , Germany 40%+, Japan 27%+, and Italy 13%+. Korea, Japan and Germany are the most automated countries in the world based on the number of multipurpose industrial robots (all types) per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry. The world average robot density is 55 per 10,000 employees. Japan and Korea have the greatest number of robots per employee approaching 350 robots per 10,000 employees followed by Germany with over 250 robots per employee. The United States, with 130 robots per 10,000 employees, has a significantly lower concentration than leading countries.

Key reasons for using robots include:

  • Achieving precision and consistent manufacturing at an affordable cost.
  • Serving production where work conditions are unsatisfactory for people.
  • Enabling high labor cost countries to compete with low labor cost area.

The study also noted that the shortages of skilled manufacturing people have not been relieved by re-training during the recession and remain an important problem for industry.

Study Findings at a glance include data that direct employment due to robotics is 4 to 6 million jobs created in world manufacturing, represented by 3 to 5 jobs created per robot in use. Indirect employment created as a result to robots increases this number to 8 – 10 million jobs. It is projected that 1.9 to 3.5 million jobs will be created by robots in the next eight years. When manufacturing jobs are saved, jobs throughout the community where the factories are located are also saved.

IFR CEO Roundtable 2013

I had the pleasure of moderating the discussion about the impacts of robots on jobs with the following panelists:

Drew Greenblatt, President & Owner, Marlin Steel, USA

Marlin Steel manufactures material handling and cleaning baskets, sheet metal fabrications, wire forms, and machined products for aerospace, automotive, medical, pharmaceutical, industrial, and military applications.

Matt Tyler, President & CEO, Vickers Engineering, USA

Vickers is a precision machining and fabrication company serving the automotive, oil & gas, agriculture, defense, and industrial markets.

John Dulchinos, President & CEO, Adept Technology, USA

Adept Technology, Inc. is the largest U.S.-based manufacturer of industrial robots and provides intelligent vision-guided robotics systems and services.

Professor Alexander Verl, Head of Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering & Automation

Professor Verl is also Chairman of the IFR Research Committee in Germany. The Fraunhofer IPA was founded in 1959 and incorporated in the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in 1971. It is one of the largest single research institutes employing around 200 scientists with 50 percent revenue coming from industrial projects.

IFR 2013 CEO Roundtable

We explored topics related to the robotics industry.

Question: What is the impact of robots on employment and quality in your company?

Drew Greenblatt

“We embrace robots, we are a small factory in Baltimore, Maryland, that has grown 7 years in a row and robots have helped us surge ahead.” Robots have helped create jobs opportunities for safer and more interesting jobs. Greenblatt explained that robots help his factory go faster by saying, “We live in email time where people want things yesterday.” “If you deploy robots in your factory you will be able to ship products more quickly and your clients will be satisfied and will not take their business overseas.” Marlin Steel is adding jobs because they are more competitive and responsive, which is enabling them to secure more business. Robots make consistent good parts that meet tight tolerances. Their clients love the quality and this has stimulated more sales orders and is part of the reason the company has enjoyed 7 years of growth despite the recession. “Using robots is like putting employees on steroids, they can make parts faster, increasing productivity and making each employee more valuable,” said Greenblatt.

As a result of their success the company is paying employees more and providing richer benefits. He also cited increased safety due to robots. The company is currently enjoying over 1,500 days without a safety incident. “The robots are doing the carpel tunnel work, robots are doing things that are more likely to cause harm - repetitive, boring, heavy lifting,” said Greenblatt. The company has 32 employees, including 20% degreed mechanical engineers. Greenblatt noted they are doing more “brain work” rather than “brawn” to be more innovative to beat competitors. “When I bought the company (in 1998) we could only pay a typical factory person minimum wage,” said Greenblatt.  “Now, on average, everyone gets paid 4 times more and we have full health insurance.” The company now ships to 36 countries. “Robots should be embraced in America,” said Greenblatt. “It is a sad state of affairs when Korea and Japan have embraced robots more than America.”

Matt Tyler

“Automation has transformed our company,” said Tyler. “We were a very traditional, old school fabrication and machining company.” The company is now supplying world class companies including Toyota and FMC Technology. He explained that in order to secure and maintain this type of business the company must be globally competitive in cost, perfect quality, constant reliable shipment, and delivery without fail. The CNC machine technology they have is state-of-the-art. “When humans handle hundreds of thousands of parts a year a year with the expectation of zero failure, you’re asking for problems,” said Tyler. “Automation has allowed us to compete on a global basis and it has created jobs in Southwest Michigan. If it had not been for automation we would not have beaten our Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican competitors.”

Tyler commented that the biggest growth concern they have, growing from 170 employees with $30 million in sales to $63 million in sales in 2016, is finding skilled and knowledgeable people. He explained the company had a very hard time filling jobs during the peak of the recession. They consistently had 10-12 entry level positions open. “No one wanted to get into the old school carpal tunnel syndrome, rough, dirty, stereotypical manufacturing environment,” sad Tyler.

Professor Alexander Verl

Professor Verl, using Germany as an example, noted that countries with high productivity are competitive and can afford a good social system, and a good health care system. If you lose manufacturing jobs you lose all of related jobs at local businesses since people have less money to spend. The addition of new technology to enhance robots, coupled with decreasing costs of robots, will expand the number of applications. He cited robot collaboration with people is a new area for growth.

Future Robots

The group discussed future robot developments.

John Dulchinos

Development of mobile autonomous robots promises to automate the movement of goods in a facility. This will make possible the elimination of the traditional production line and replace it with work-in-process, non-sequential flow around the factory. This will create flexible factories to meet the demands of make-to-order manufacturing.

Drew Greenblatt

We need to have improvements that provide quick robot setup. “Today, it takes to great deal of time to get a robot working…we need MAC Book like setup,” said Greenblatt. “The average U.S. companies are 10-15 employees…these companies are not running 3 million parts jobs but very short run, quick changeover. For robots to be effective in these companies, 2-10 minute changeover is required to squeeze more jobs through each work cell.”

Matt Tyler

Tyler said her would like to see robots with vision so it can pick out parts from a bin on demand, making them more flexible. He reinforced the comments by Greenblatt on simplify setup time to justify using robots on lower volume production. “If we could have a mobile robot that is easy to teach on a consistent changeover basis - that will move a skid of components from the cell to the dock, to the warehouse - I would do it,” said Tyler.

Professor Alexander Verl

Verl believes mobile robots on the horizon will incorporate “skillful mapping algorithms,” making them useful. He noted that developments in improving the simplification of installation, application engineering, and programming will accelerate the use of robots.

Thoughts & Observations

Marlin Steel and Vickers Engineering are examples of companies that are using robot technology to be competitive. Small companies like these are the backbone of manufacturing in the United States and others should think about their automation opportunities to be competitive.

The lack of robot use in the United States relative to other countries is disturbing. The lack of adoption of automation in general in the U.S. is troubling. I believe this situation has a great deal to do with company management that does not understand manufacturing technology and is focused on the short term.


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