Experts discuss the impact of robots on jobs in America at Automate 2017: Part 2

Continuing on with the topic of robots and automation, and their impact on jobs and U.S. manufacturing, we take a look at the CEO round table hosted by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) that took place at Automate 2017 on Monday.

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Continuing on with the topic of robots and automation, and their impact on jobs and U.S. manufacturing, we take a look at the CEO round table hosted by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) that took place at Automate 2017on Monday.

During this round table, Gudun Litzenberger, IFR General Secretary introduced the panel, which included the following:

  • Jon Battles, Director, Amazon WW Engineering Advanced Technologies
  • Howie Choset, CTO, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute
  • Mark Franks, Director, GMNA Global Vehicle Systems, General Motors
  • Craig Hertig, Director of Engineering, Engineered Machined Products
  • Mike Jacobs, President, Applied Manufacturing Technologies
  • Vegard Nerseth, Group Senior Vice President, ABB

From there, Joe Gemma, IFR President and Chief Regional Officer of KUKA Robotics, provided some details on the latest results of sales of industrial robots. Robotics in the US are expected to grow from 27,504 to 31,500 robots in 2016, which represents a 15% increase, he noted. The driver of growth is the increased need for automation, with automotive applications leading the way with about 17,6000 industrial robots installed, which is 43% more than 2015, according to Gemma.

Coinciding with the increased number of robotics installations were the growing number of jobs last year, which Gemma said grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6% (with robots growing at a CAGR of 9%). In total, almost 290,000 industrial robots were installed in 2016, which is 14% more than 2015.

"The future will be robots and humans working together," said Gemma.

The lively panel discussion kicked off with the topic of robots and jobs. Per Vegard Nerseth, Group Senior Vice President, ABB, told the audience, "Robots actually create jobs," while citing the fact that from 2010-2015, the automotive industry purchased 135,000 robots and hired more than 200,000 new employees.

Howie Choset, CTO, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, agreed. "If we ask ourselves if innovation and automate create jobs, the answer is yes."

How are employees whose companies introduce robotics at their place of work expected to react? Will they be nervous, and feel that their job is in jeopardy? This is an interesting question, and I was happy to hear it addressed during the discussion. Jon Battles, Director, Amazon WW Engineering Advanced Technologies said that at Amazon, his employees do not react as you’d expect.

"Exposing our employees to technology and robotics, it inspires them. Technology and robotics are creating new jobs, and jobs that are going to be really good for people. Career jobs."

Amazon, a company that has pledged to create 100,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. this year, has installed more than 45,000 robotic systems in their fulfillment centers. These jobs will range from entry-level fulfillment to automation support jobs.

"It is important to understand that the technology and robotics we work on, require a lot of jobs," said Battles.

Robotics will have an impact on smaller companies as well, noted a number of people on the panel, including Choset.

"Will smaller manufacturing companies be able to use robotics? Yes. Robotics will enable small companies to be able to compete on a global level."

Small companies, he suggested, should consider the slogan "Automate or evaporate."

In terms of the future of manufacturing, and what could be coming onto the horizon, the panel offered some interested tidbits. Advanced additive manufacturing, Battles said, will be a very interesting technology to keep an eye on, has it has created many jobs.

"I think we will also see a new generation of manufacturing for the products of the future (Products we haven’t even thought about yet.) We could see a revolution in robotics and automation just to support our future."

Members of the team also touted the importance of programs like the FIRST Robotics Competition, in which international high school teams work during a six-week period to build game-playing robots that weigh up to 120 pounds. Jacobs, Hertig, and Choset noted that their organizations sponsor FIRST teams, and that the programs are "important," and "inspirational." One thing that the panel certainly agreed on was the importance of training the future generation in robotics and automation.

A few other items of relevance that came up during the panel that are worthy of mention:

  • The concept of taking robots proposed by Bill Gates was dismissed as a bit short-sighted, if not silly. Perhaps consider taking the profits, but not the robots, was the idea proposed.
  • Jacobs on Google: "If you aren’t considering Google a competitor, no matter what you do, you aren’t very wise."
  • When asked about GM’s timeline on autonomous vehicles, Franks declined comment, a bit laughingly, noting that he didn’t want to get himself in trouble.

Lastly, at the end of the panel discussion, the moderator asked the panel the following question: "In 2030, in what area will the US be the leading global force in manufacturing?" The panelists’ answers are as follows:

  • Nerseth: Small-to-medium sized enterprises could be leaders in automation.
  • Battles: I can’t specifically answer, but I do know that the education, training, and vision that we have to create now, are going to be key for the future.
  • Jacobs: Believe in our spirit and ability to innovate. Good to see this spirit in young college graduates. We will see great things from them.
  • Choset: I don’t know just yet. We never thought about how we didn’t have Amazon 15-20 years ago.
  • Hertig: Manufacturing of precision, complex components.
  • Franks: I can’t predict either, but I would say that the innovation level of our young and old engineers is there to start paving this way. We need to start looking and preparing now for 2030. Can’t wait to see what it looks like.

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