Rise of the Machines: Robots in Manufacturing

Monica Orrigo
July 25, 2016

In movies like The Terminator and Blade Runner, robots are intelligent enough to pose a threat to humans. Developed to perform tasks for their human masters, science fiction’s robots have often evolved and become independent. The reality today is nowhere near as dramatic, but robots in manufacturing are evolving to become more capable of performing tasks that up until a few years ago, were beyond the capability of a mere machine. It’s a real life “Rise of the Machines” that stands to benefit manufacturers around the world, and is quickly changing the manufacturing landscape across industries.

Manufacturing Robots More Widespread As Tech Evolves

Manufacturers seeking to make their processes more competitive have long looked to robots in manufacturing to build products more reliably and cost effectively. Until relatively recently, however, the applications for which a manufacturing robot could actually be considered were fairly limited. Robots were too large, clumsy and dangerous to work near humans, and were only capable of doing simple tasks that did not require much dexterity or intelligence. This is changing as the technology driving robots in manufacturing becomes more advanced. As technology improves, demand for manufacturing robots has increased across multiple manufacturing applications. In fact, orders for manufacturing robots have nearly tripled in the last few years, surpassing 20,000 units between 2011 and 2013 in North America. Investment by venture capital firms has also increased, rising to about $172 million in 2013, nearly triple 2011 levels. Roughly 59% of manufacturers now use some sort of robotics technology in their manufacturing processes. That number is likely to grow as limitations around robots in manufacturing are removed. Once limited to large, heavy work, manufacturing robots are increasingly being used for more delicate, repetitive tasks that until recently had to be done by hand, such as the assembly of consumer electronics. These advances in manufacturing robotics are set to make big changes in the manufacturing industry and in the world at large, allowing small manufacturers to compete directly against larger firms. Indeed, by reducing labor costs, they could even allow the United States and other high-wage nations to be more competitive against countries like China and Mexico, where labor is cheaper.

Trends: Robots in Manufacturing

So what are some of the trends in manufacturing robots that we think bear watching? Robot use increasing along with wages: According to the Wall Street Journal

, the leading country in terms of sheer number of manufacturing robots in use is Japan, while South Korea leads in terms of robots per 10,000 workers. But as wages increase, China has committed to increasing the use of robots to prevent the country’s manufacturing base from following low wages to other countries. The region of Guangdong, China’s manufacturing epicenter, has committed to spending $154 billion on robotics technology in the near future. Reshoring, or the return of US manufacturing: The trend of using robots to prevent losing manufacturing work to lower wage countries isn’t limited to China. In the United States, some of the manufacturing work that has been outsourced to lower wage countries may one day return. Only this time, the work will be performed by robots. This trend, called re-shoring, could bring manufacturing jobs in the form of managerial and robot programming staff, and could help with trade balances, even if the traditional middle class manufacturing jobs that once dominated the American manufacturing industry don’t necessarily return along with them. One American industry that could experience a resurgence due to robots in manufacturing is the textile and garment industry. Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation recently attracted $3 million in venture capital to develop robots that it says can sew garments. The company hopes that its robots can help shift some clothing production back to the United States. Robots that are smarter: One of the big criticisms against robots is that they require a great deal of human oversight and programming. This new generation of robots is much smarter. Research into artificial neural networks is proving indispensable in training robots to understand a variety of content, such as images, video and audio. Robot developers are now using this approach, called deep learning, to train robots to see, grasp and even reason. Robots that can work safely with people: Another problem with past versions of robots in manufacturing was that they were not safe to work near people. Think large, swinging robotic arms that were completely unaware of humans in the area. These safety issues added to the cost of using robots in manufacturing, as they had to be very precisely placed, bolted down, and fenced off to keep personnel out of harm’s way. This is changing: robots are now being developed with sensors not unlike the collision detection systems in some cars. This is making it safer to use robots in manufacturing processes where their work must be done in close proximity to humans. Robots that are more nimble: No longer are robots mainly employed in large, heavy industries like automotive manufacturing. Today’s robots have the dexterity and sensing capability to do the kind of close, fine labor that once required factory labor with nimble fingers, such as in the consumer electronics industry. Today’s robots are no longer the ham fisted automatons of the past, they’re being built with increasing dexterity, programmed to use their environment to better grip objects, making them suitable for a wider variety of tasks. Robots in the skies : Now that the FAA has begun registering and approving drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) for commercial applications and has begun testing technology for controlling drone air traffic, more uses will be found for drones across industries, including manufacturing. While companies like Google, Amazon and others have long advocated for the use of drones as delivery vehicles, there’s also a good case for the use of drones in other manufacturing and supply chain applications such as sourcing materials, quality assurance, inventory tracking, and warehouse management and logistics. It’s an amazing time for manufacturing. While we may not be living in the machine-driven future that science fiction movies have envisioned, the technology is advancing so quickly that it’s not hard to imagine that robots in manufacturing could soon be in wide use across multiple industries around the world. What trends are you watching when it comes to robotics in manufacturing? Let us know in the comments.