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Robots in Manufacturing

July 1, 2016

There has been much fanciful thinking about having all the parts of a product, or even just the raw materials, entering one end of an unmanned factory, with the completed product exiting from the other end.

This provides the backdrop for how workers will be displaced by robots.

The facts, however, are very different.

Robots aren’t new.

While any automatic piece of equipment can be called a robot, the term emerged more accurately during the 1960s when robots could be programmed to perform specific actions.

GE became interested in robots during the 1960s and worked with a designer of robots, Engelberger, and his manufacturing company, Unimate.

At that time, robots were used mostly for transferring materials from one location to another.

GE became very interested in robots in the 1970s, and by 1980 had dedicated a business to the Factory of the Future, incorporating GE machine controls, an existing business, and robot designs licensed from others.

The concept failed, though pieces of the business remained profitable.

Robots need to be programmed, which is at the heart of many problems, and why robots have been limited to repetitive operations.

Since the 1980s, robots have become familiar pieces of equipment in many factories, if not ubiquitous. In nearly every application, however, the robot is used for repetitive operations, such as spot welding an automobile frame or painting a component.

Different model automobile frames can be processed through the same facility, but the robot must be told to follow a different program for each model, preprogrammed in the robot’s computer controls.

With Unimate in the 1960s, programming was accomplished by moving the robot arm to a desired position, recording it, and then moving the arm to the next position, recording it, and so on. The robot’s hand, or effector, when it was in position was itself manipulated, rotated, grasped, etc., to each desired position which were then recorded in a controller; a simple computer by today’s standards.

Obviously the programing of a robot is much easier today with modern computers, and a plethora of subprograms, or subroutines, that have been banked for use as needed. For example, PolySync used for autonomous vehicles, has a suite of applications that speed-up programing, and make it easier.

But the basics remain: Robots must be programmed to accomplish the work to be done.

The concept of self learning may ease the programming problem. But it too will still be limited to operations that don’t vary, by very much.

For example, a robot’s program can be viewed as a series of what-if statements. Trying to answer an infinite number of what-if statements results in an infinite loop, where the robot freezes.

Robots used in restaurants and in hotels, for example, merely follow a set of what-if statements programmed into the computer. It’s a simple matter for a robot to deliver a meal from the kitchen to a table, as the motions are very repetitive. Even the hotel desk clerk can be programmed to answer the steps taken for checking into the hotel. They are fixed and routine. It’s actually possible for people to check themselves into a hotel without a desk clerk, but people expect someone behind the desk.

Robots Welding Automobile Frames, from The Old Robots. Org

Robots Welding Automobile Frames, from The Old Robots. Org

In a factory, the robot must be able to accurately position itself, that is its effector, to a specific x, y, z axis, and expect that the part, say a joint in an automobile frame to be spot welded, will be precisely at that position.

This is why parts to be worked on by a robot must be prepositioned, or the relationship between the part and the robot be maintained when both are moving.

But, will robots displace so many workers that every person should receive an annual grant from the government?

The fact is, robots have been used for decades and have displaced many workers.

But new jobs have been created, such as mechanics to maintain and repair robots, design engineers who have learned to use CAD, i.e., computer aided design programs, and engineers who have learned how to program the robots.

The main problem has been how to train the displaced worker, a painter, for example, so he is capable of doing one of the new jobs, or finding the painter a job somewhere else.

Again, this has already happened, as progress has been made with automated factories and the use of robots.

The ideal way to accommodate workers displaced by automation is to grow the business so that overall, more workers will be needed.

This is another reason why economic growth and the revitalization of manufacturing is so important.

It’s not likely that automated factories will suddenly cause tremendous job displacement, because the use of robots has been evolving slowly.

It required 30 to 50 years for factory automation, with the use of robots for repetitive operations, to become common place, during which time new jobs have been created.

The potential for large job displacement comes from outside manufacturing, with concepts such as Uber, and the use of autonomous vehicles.

A future article will explore these other forces.

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