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Robots: Flexible Automation for a Strong Economy

POSTED 02/11/2005  | By: Donald A. Vincent, Executive Vice President

Just how should American manufacturing react to the cheap foreign labor available overseas? Many people have answered this question by proposing tariffs and organizing boycotts, but others are taking a much more productive and proactive approach. More companies in a growing number of industries are recognizing that wealthy societies such as the U.S. have an important advantage—access to advanced technology like robotics.

Today’s manufacturers can deploy a generation of robots that have evolved tremendously since Joseph Engelberger and George Devol built the first prototype in 1959. Not only have the precision and accuracy of these robots improved by orders of magnitude, but the enabling hardware and software now has the horsepower to perform a wide variety of jobs—from painting cars and tending machinery to populating printed circuit boards and putting pills in packages. The best news about modern robots is that they have evolved to the point where they are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Even the smallest companies have the ability to deploy them with a great deal of success.

Most companies reaping dividends from their investments in robotics have used the automobile industry as a benchmark. Still the largest users of the 137,000 robots already at work in North America (according to 2004 statistics from the industry trade group: Robotic Industries Association), the automakers were the first manufacturers to deploy them in their factories. General Motors Corporation’s Turnstedt Division plant in Trenton, New Jersey, deployed the first commercially available industrial robot in a die-casting operation in 1961. There, the robot relieved the operator from having to remove hot parts from a die-casting machine producing decorative body hardware. Not only did the operator have to work in a hot, fume-filled environment, but he also had to wear protective gear to shield him from splashes of hot metal.

For the next two decades, subsequent applications at General Motors and elsewhere would focus on relieving people of dangerous, dirty and difficult jobs until the early 1980s, when builders began introducing models using servomotors and microprocessor-based controllers. Although the old hydraulic robots excelled at handling the heavy payloads found in the automobile industry, they were slow compared to conventional automation and cumbersome to program, and often leaked oil. The new servo drives and microprocessor-based controllers introduced during this decade solved these problems and opened the door to many more applications in electronics, food processing, appliance manufacturing, mechanical assembly, and packaging.

A new era began for robotics. Manufacturers began to deploy robots to boost processing speeds and improve quality in a variety of manual and automated applications, rather than mainly to relieve workers of dangerous, dirty, and difficult jobs. By the late ’80s, a critical mass of robots had gone to work in a variety of industries, which translated to lower robot prices. Because robots could automate jobs that require dexterity and flexibility without demanding a huge investment in dedicated machinery, the number of companies that could afford them grew significantly, which quickly spurred more development.

By the early ’90s, the evolution of robots to servodrives and microprocessors had a profound effect on how the robot was used in automated processes. Industry turned its attention to developing tools that would take advantage of the improvements in the robots. Technology like tool changers, machine vision, force feedback, and integrated software application packages allowed the robots to become easier to setup and program, as well as perform more difficult tasks. Consequently, the design of the automated system could use the robot as the centerpiece of the automated process. The focus could now be on: ‘‘How much can a single robot do in an automated cell?’‘ The effect was that instead of justifying a robot based on a dangerous, dirty or difficult work, the justification for capital expenditure could now include faster production, flexibility, quality and the automation of tasks that could not be automated using older technology.

What about Workers?
As robots continue to gain greater acceptance and become more widespread, some observers wonder about the welfare of workers. They ask, do robots simply replace low-paid workers and threaten well-paying jobs? The answer is yes and no. Although robots do replace people in some applications, they usually do so in undesirable, risky jobs that are better suited for machines anyway. In most of these cases, the only reason that a person was doing the job in the first place was that other automatic equipment was too expensive and impractical for the task. Because modern robots are flexible and fast, they not only can do these jobs but also have the ability to replace other forms of dedicated or less flexible automation. So, many robots today actually are replacing other machines.

Even though robots sometimes do replace people, one must remember that they also create opportunity. In other words, workers benefit from the fundamental precept of macroeconomics that says that advancing technology is the only way for a people to increase their standard of living in the long run. Advancing technology is the only way to increase productivity (making more, better for less) in a sustainable, desirable, and safe way. In addition, the expansion of automation is creating new jobs and opportunities.

Most labor unions have recognized robots as one of these technologies and have strived to reap some of the benefits. Because these machines have proven that they can improve productivity of workers and give companies flexibility in their production lines to be competitive, unions see them as a means of not only relieving workers of unsafe, undesirable tasks but also protecting their jobs from cheaper labor overseas. So rather than fighting the technology, most unions embraced it, negotiating with management to train their members to operate it.

Promoting Flexible Manufacturing
Given the success in the automobile industry, other industries have followed the automakers’ lead and learned many of the same lessons. In labor-intensive jobs, such as populating circuit boards and decorating cookies, robots relieved workers of the tedium and injuries associated with repetitive tasks. Not only did they automate tasks that needed a measure of dexterity and the flexibility to react to change on the fly, but they also could perform the tasks faster and more consistently than people. On production lines already using other forms of automation, they also were able to introduce a measure of flexibility similar to manual operations.

In the food-processing industry, for example, Connecticut-based Pepperidge Farm Inc. began dabbling in robotics in the mid ’80s to cure the rising number of repetitive motion injuries among the workers on its cookie lines. Rows and rows of workers along long moving belts had been picking up thousands of cookies all day long for 10 to 20 years, decorating some, making others into filled sandwiches, and sorting and putting all of them into packages. Although demand had grown for the company’s products, the volume of any one of them was still too small to pay for the dedicated automation that was available at the time for these tasks.

Robots changed things, however. In them, the company had finally found a form of automation that could accommodate its different, delicate products and various packaging schemes. When the company began installing them on its decorating and packaging lines, its workers’ compensation cases fell substantially.

As the production staff gained experience and robotics technology continued to advance, the company began to reap more than just a safer working environment for its employees. It has learned to use the more than 100 robots it bought over the years to enhance productivity and react to market trends competitively.

Not only do the robots perform their jobs much faster than people, but they also let Pepperidge Farm reap some important benefits of flexible automation. For example, at the Milano chocolate-filled cookie line, robotic handling improves product quality by eliminating fingerprints in toppings and reducing other forms of damage to the cookies. The ability to download a new program into the robots is an important part of the company’s ability to follow demand. The company can change over its automated production and packaging lines to deliver products in whatever formats its customers want. Walmart, for example, might want fifteen Milano cookies in a special wrapped tray, whereas Target might want ten cookies in another type of package. All Pepperidge needs to do to accommodate a change in buying habits among consumers is to reprogram the robots to put the cookies in a new package.

This ability to accommodate different and changing tastes with little effort is prompting more manufacturers of consumer goods to install robots in their plants. Pressure only continues to mount to deliver products that satisfy changing consumer tastes quickly without having to hold inventories. Because modern robots combine the flexibility previously associated with people and the productivity possible only through automation, more manufacturers are interested in the ability of robots to help their production lines to produce to demand.

Shoes Still Made in USA
In fact, the flexibility of robotics is the reason that Boston-based New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc. can continue to make its running shoes in the U.S., yet be competitive with other brands made in Asia. When robotics technology matured enough for builders of sole molding machines to integrate robots into their products, New Balance bought one of these machines to automate that part of a line that produced its running shoes. The three robots tending the machine reduced the total labor necessary to run it by 31% yet preserved the company’s ability to make a mix of sizes economically.

Shoemaking demands a great deal of flexibility because of its complexity. Unlike microwave ovens, for example, each style of shoe must fit a variety of people. Each style has approximately 75 stocking units (the various combinations of different lengths and widths), and each stocking unit comes in a pair to fit both feet. So satisfying demand for the various sizes of any one style requires frequent changeovers, a fact that has made shoemaking a labor-intensive business. Any form of automation must be flexible enough to accommodate the mix of sizes.

Because automating every aspect of the process is still impractical for the lot sizes at New Balance, the shoemaker configured the process for a mixture of people and robots. While the robots perform the repetitive tasks, the people perform those tasks that require judgment, such as checking the quality of the molded soles, adjusting the molding parameters, and making the machine ready to produce different sizes of shoes. On an average day, the machine’s operators change three or four pairs of molds so the stations can produce a batch of different-size shoes. Changeovers take about 20 minutes.

A Bright Future
The stories at New Balance and Pepperidge Farm are representative of a trend in the application of robots. Although automobile manufacturing alone still drives 50- to 60-percent of the industrial robot industry, a much more diverse base of users is installing robots into their machinery and processes. And judging by how fast the robot sales are recovering from the last recession, they are eager to do so. In fact, domestic orders in 2004 got off to the fastest start since the record-setting year of 1999, and this strong rebound is expected to continue in 2005.

Feeding this heightened interest is the dramatic fall in the cost to buy, outfit, and maintain robots. Not only have suppliers of robotic equipment been able to amortize their development costs over the years over a growing number of units, but they also have been able to exploit the tremendous, but cheap computing power available today. Consequently, suppliers have been free to encode a great deal of intelligence into their software to simplify programming and diagnostics. Because of the lower purchase price and operating costs, robots now fit comfortably in the budgets of small operations. 

Intelligence encoded in software running behind the scenes to interpret sensory feedback is also helping robots to cope with new challenges. The advantage of such feedback allows the robot to perform more of the decision-making process based on a visual or force feedback, much as a person would do.

The ability to collect and use this sophisticated feedback not only will reduce the need for expensive fixtures and handling mechanisms to present parts to robots in a known orientation but also will add much needed flexibility in the process. Manufacturers using robots equipped with this technology will be serious contenders in today’s—and tomorrow’s—global marketplace. They will have a method for designing and delivering new products customized to the tastes of consumers in local markets before demand wanes from changes in customer taste. With flexible automation, they no longer need long lead times to design processes to make the product, order the equipment, and build the tooling to support it. Instead, they can reprogram their robots and begin producing quality products now.

As robotic technology continues to advance, robots will only continue to find their way into an increasing variety of applications. They already have made significant inroads beyond their long-standing applications in the metalworking industries. They are working in the furniture, woodworking, plastics processing, food processing, pharmaceutical, and medical industries. Researchers even are using robots to conduct multiple trials in laboratories, and surgeons are beginning to learn to use them in operating rooms.

These people have taken a proactive approach to the problem of cheap foreign labor. Rather than proposing tariffs and organizing boycotts, they have chosen to reduce their unit costs the smart way: by investing in robotic technology and competing with capital, not wages. Robots give them both the flexibility and dexterity available from people and the repeatability and speed associated with automation. The result is more productivity, the surest and most positive form of sustaining strong profits and remaining competitive.