The rise of automation has brought with it improved efficiency, more precise processes for repetitive tasks, as well as other positives. But along with these developments come workforce fears—as old as the Industrial Revolution itself—of being replaced by machinery.
Although some earlier waves of mechanization did replace workers, the current uptake of automation—and robotics in particular—is aimed primarily at shifting the task distribution rather than eliminating workers. It’s an important message for engineering leaders to heed, and share, as they make decisions about automation.
For instance, Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, says that some warehousing and manufacturing customers are buying their autonomous material handling robots because they can’t get enough people to do the job. “But what they're really trying to do, in many cases, is take people who are doing things that are not adding value to their business and move them into positions that do add value,” she says.
Consider a picker, or even a highly skilled assembler’s job in a manufacturing facility where the primary responsibility is to perform a process with a machine. In addition to the main functions, these jobs also include a great deal of moving material around, either on a cart, in a tote, or in some other way. Having robots do this necessary but non-value-add work frees the human worker to do something of greater value.
“When you start adding robots, people aren't getting displaced from jobs and leaving jobs,” Wise says. “They're getting put into higher specialty jobs. And that actually makes them more valuable to the company.”
Below, industry experts offer tips to help minimize any potential negative from incorporating robotic help.
Decide on a goal.
Knowing what you want to accomplish with robots, and communicating that goal to your workforce, is important to getting started on the right foot. One piece of common wisdom is that robots can be great for handling tasks that fall into the three D’s: dirty, dull or dangerous.
“The first things I look for in a manufacturing process are safety issues, frequent injuries, or hazardous jobs that are currently done by humans,” says Chris Quick, founder and CEO of RealBotics, Inc. “The goal then is to have a robot step in for the unsafe portion and allow the human to continue applying their skills and additional capacity to the rest of the operation.”
One example is sanding. “When sanding a metal part, a human could be exposed to a lot of, say, aluminum or titanium dust. Instead, the human could focus on loading an automated sanding system, thereby reducing the human’s exposure to metal dust,” Quick says.
Another candidate would be assembly operations that require heavy lifting, where carpal tunnel problems are likely, or where there are pinch points such as when retrieving parts from baskets. “You usually can find ways to introduce robots to do those tasks and assist the humans in their jobs,” Quick says.
For example, if most of the components used on an assembly line are easy to handle but a few are large and unwieldy, adding a robot to help maneuver the troublesome parts can improve both worker safety and productivity.
Using traditional reduced incident rate statistics to report on such safety improvements often falls short when describing the effect of implementing a robotic solution. Essentially, the problem is engineered away. For example, an Arla Foods cheese processing and packaging facility in Gotene, Sweden, switched to robots to avoid manual product handling. This completely eliminated repetitive strain injuries that had been plaguing the workforce. Four robots now pack 90 units of cheese per minute—the same number of units that previously required two workers.
Outline the opportunities.
“Leadership’s challenge is to present the introduction of robots to the workforce as an opportunity,” says T.J. Johnson, who has been involved in industrial automation for 15 years and now is president of TJ Johnson Robotics & Consulting. In essence, when a robot joins the operation, it’s likely that a worker gets to step up and be that robot’s “supervisor.”
One example is robotic welding. Robots are well-suited to repeatedly making perfect welds, thus relieving a human welder of a grueling, tiresome task, but they require direction—in other words, programming. An experienced human welder can still do the setup or fixturing, choose the size and material of the filler wire, and plan how the welds are to be made. By being trained to program the robot, the human welder simply functions at a higher level, more like a CNC machine operator.
Adding a robot to the production line also can increase the team’s overall capacity, which often is one of the desired results.
“People usually think of extra capacity as [meaning] ‘the robot's going to be better, so we can make more of these parts faster.’ But that doesn't have to be how you gain that extra capacity,” Quick says. “One way you might get extra capacity is by replacing a human on a particular task, which then enables that human to introduce the extra capacity you were looking for, as opposed to a robot being able to do a job faster than a human.”
Train all the levels your workforce.
“We have customers who physically use the robot to do work, but there's also the level above them, like process engineers and people who have to make sure the robots stay up and running, don't have any problems, and can answer questions,” Wise says.
“The biggest thing company leaders need to decide is where robot management will live in their hierarchy,” Wise says. “Then they also have to make sure everyone has shared context for what's happening, in terms of training, and in terms of helping everyone understand what the roles and responsibilities are within the new automation or automated facility.”
Let the robot draw the short straw.
Because they can be engineered to take far more environmental abuse than even the best-outfitted human worker, robots can be an excellent choice for the jobs everyone else considers to be just awful.
“I looked at an application once for handling 500-degree [Fahrenheit] parts,” Johnson says. “The employees enjoyed working for the company, but hated this particular task, and the owner was distraught.”
Johnson and his team consulted with the owner in order to find a viable solution.
“We came up with a robotic solution that didn't replace anyone,” he says. “It just took away the amount of time the employees were standing in front of the loud and hot press. The result: The workforce was happier; the owner was happier. He had employees that were working, and we increased his total production throughput.”