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Why Robots Matter

POSTED 10/10/2006  | By: Donald A. Vincent, Executive Vice President

Donald A. VincentIn this age of soaring energy costs, trade imbalances and vigorous struggles for market share, robots are one of the few options a country like the USA has to stay competitive with emerging industrial nations. I am happy to say friends in the federal government share this sentiment, and I can report that RIA had the honor of helping to cultivate a positive attitude about robots at a recent workshop  organized by the Department of Energy.

When the DOE held the ‘‘Robotics in Manufacturing Roadmapping Workshop’‘ in the middle of 2006, Jeff Fryman, RIA’s director of standards development, and I flew to Baltimore, Maryland to represent the industry. We met with a determined group of ‘‘30 technical experts and stakeholders from across the industry’‘ and tackled a long list of what the DOE identified as opportunities and barriers for the use of robots in industrial manufacturing.

According to the DOE, ‘‘The overall purpose of this workshop was to produce a Robotics in Manufacturing Roadmap that can be used to advance the application of small lot and flexible robot systems in the manufacturing process.’‘ We spent the day looking at how technology, specifically robots, can ‘‘increase productivity or reduce energy use’‘ to meet the challenge of ‘‘global competition, particularly from countries where labor costs are much lower than those in the United States.’‘

Robots are energy efficient. They are tireless agents of productivity and precision. And installing robots is a proven and winning strategy to speed up time to market, improve quality and maximize efficiency. After more than 30 years on the job, robots matter more to an industrialized nation than perhaps any other capital equipment on the factory floor.

China, Mexico and any other country with a manufacturing base that requires high quality has automation. If a company wants to get to market faster than the competition or respond more quickly with product updates, a robot usually makes economic sense no matter where the plant is located. That said, any cost-benefit analysis should take a hard look at trade-offs between outsourcing and the cultural and logistical complications that result. Local expertise and a talented work pool make North America highly competitive, and the technology revolution in the last few decades makes it easy for one person to supervise several robots for more and more tasks.

Now take that person and his or her team of robots and think about why their location matters to the local customer. Parking lots are full at Target and Wal-Mart because these stores offer great value, but not in exactly the same way. Robots are hard at work packing and palletizing mixed lots and different configurations of products according to specifications set by each store. From paper goods to food and beverages as well as electronics, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer are finding more value at retail outlets thanks to a supply chain that has robots all the way from the factory floor to the distribution center. Production that combines North American workers and robotic technology adds to our ability to maintain stability and quality at home, while energizing the economy.

Lately, robots have helped improve quality of life as business tools for non-manufacturing sectors such as medical and pharmaceutical. Surgical procedures have been robotized so that incisions are smaller and procedures less invasive, which means recovery is faster. It also means highly trained surgeons can extend their professional lives by leaning on automation that steadies the hand and sharpens the touch. Pharmacies are installing robots to eliminate costly – even deadly – errors and waste. Quality of life is on the threshold of a new era thanks to robots, and this technology is helping to control costs at the same time.

Thanks to early commitments in the automotive industry, robots have improved in value, reliability and usability. Other industries are now feeding off that success. And like the automotive industry, the competition is not standing still. Just as Chrysler was at a crossroads of technology and market pressure in the 1980’s, local makers of computer drives, furniture, personal watercraft, airplanes, candy, beer, soda, textiles and everything else must learn to use flexible automation to compete.

Fortunately, the DOE and other government bodies have come to see the importance of robots. RIA was listed at the top of nearly every Action Plan developed as a result of the Roadmapping meeting. That will help bring this technology into focus, but RIA won’t stand still waiting for federally ordained initiatives.

This is an industry that puts its emphasis on growing the market through education and information exchange, which is why the RIA was formed in 1974, and why the Association continues to move with the times. It has the industry’s most active Association Web site, with more than one million visitors each year. The RIA develops regional and national events based on oversight from an active and engaged membership.

Unlike many associations, RIA offers membership to users as well as suppliers. It is the voice of integrators, researchers and those who buy and sell robots, allowing RIA to identify and address industry needs. The biggest and best developments are highlighted at the industry’s biennial International Robots & Vision Show, which in 2007 includes special programming from the International Federation of Robotics. Industry standards from the Association address safety and performance, and are designed to be in step with ISO and other global requirements. Only RIA publishes statistics for robot sales and shipments, giving members keen insight into the state-of-the-industry.

If market success matters to you, contact RIA today to see how we can help. Others just like you belong to the Association and we all want to help. Chances are we have information that will help you achieve your goals. Many have prospered from the networking offered by RIA, especially during the Robotics Industry Forum, where top executives gather every year to find new business insights and opportunities. Visit us at Robotics Online (www.robotics.org) or call the office at (734) 994-6088, and give us a chance to be your source for industry intelligence..