Automate Your Factory…Boost Your Community? Why the Answer is Yes.

In the past five years, the robotics industry has grown exponentially. According to the Robotics Industry Association (RIA), the market enjoyed record sales in 2014. They estimate that some 230,000 robots are now in place at U.S. factories, putting the U.S. second only to Japan in robotics use.

This growth is only expected to continue. The International Federation of Robotics estimates, in fact, that between 2015 and 2017, robot use will increase by 12 percent per year.

While this growth has encouraging effects on job creation, another interesting ripple effect has started to emerge: boosting the local communities in which these companies are based.

How Robots Help Main Street, USA

One of the main benefits of robotics, from an economic perspective, is the ability to keep a company in the community rather than send work overseas.

Engineered Machine Products, based in Escanaba, Michigan, was determined to keep operations local—in the family-friendly community based in the idyllic Upper Peninsula. “Our CEO had a vision to keep his business here, and in order to do that he had to automate,” says Gabe Kluka, manufacturing manager. “A large part of our automation has allowed us to employ 160 people in one year.”

This job growth has a trickle effect to the community at large—after all, more people in a community means there are more people needing housing, food, and services.

Were All in This Together: Collaborative Robots Equal a Group Effort

Meanwhile, on the factory floors themselves, new innovations are creating a more collaborative workforce, blurring the lines between machine and human. Called collaborative robots, they work shoulder to, uh, shoulder with factory workers—rather than in separate, distant cages.

In September 2012, for example, Rethink Robotics introduced their new robot, “Baxter”, to great fanfare in the press. The collaborative robot even has a face with eyes that responds to human interaction (and has safety measures in place whereby it stops when it comes into contact with a coworker).

“Originally, I was worried that the operations people would see it as replacing their job, or moving to a different department,” says Alex Bosscher, mechanical engineer at metal fabricator Rapid Line, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which uses Baxter. “But they actually like the idea really well, and one of the biggest differences is that Baxter can work closely with the other operators.”

The intangible effects include empowering factory workers who are automatically bumped up to supervisory roles in charge of their new coworkers. “It’s amazing that we work with such robots on an assembly line,” says Nise Ellis, who works with the collaborative robot arms from Universal Robots at the BMW Plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “They really make a difference, taking less strain on us and helping us improve overall performance. Now I can concentrate on other tasks at work.”

As the robotics industry continues to grow, the possibilities are exciting: keeping jobs in the U.S. and boosting local economies. Not to mention, enjoying an interesting collaborative workforce never before seen.

For more information on how robotics is starting to change local landscapes, visit A3.

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