The Rise of the Robot

Automation may well be coming to an assembly line near you.

I have to admit my experiences with robots have led me to be wary of using them. The first one lost a limit switch and tossed a 600-pound casting 100 feet. I remember a visit to an IBM facility where the assembly line for its four-inch floppy drive had cost $480 million, and a single human was building the few it needed. Then there was the multi-axis robot that tested circuit boards, until the group vice president pointed out that the manual station next to it was testing twice as many boards.

In other words, for most of my career, robots looked expensive, difficult to program, marginally cost effective in operations, and unsafe for humans to be near. That's why the world isn't full of robots that work while we enjoy the fruits of their labor.

So I was more than a little surprised when Foxconn announced plans to replace its million or so workers with robots. With Chinese labor being so cheap, it didn't make too much sense, so I dug deeper and found that the face of robotics is changing rapidly.

First, the capital cost of a robot is dropping from Rolls-Royce levels into the realm of an inexpensive family sedan. Just $22,000 will get you a Baxter, a robust, flexible robot with a somewhat anthropomorphic look. Its maker, Rethink Robotics, calls Baxter the first robot “with zero integration required.”

Traditionally, a major cost of installing a robot was the programming of its operations. Baxter has changed the paradigm to a combination of GUI interface and learning by example. In fact, it's possible to move the robot's arms to show it what to do. The safety aspect has been addressed. This type of robot senses humans nearby and slows operations to allow reaction time. It has vision systems to locate and grasp things, so it doesn't require the precise item traying we've seen in the past.

More customized robots are solving repetitive or quality-sensitive tasks. Paint spraying is a common use of robots in the auto industry, and now Boeing is using the idea for planes. It is using robots to drill mounting holes, reducing defects by a huge factor.

These are valuable returns on investment, but robots haven't been incorporated in the line with humans, because of safety issues. Now that is changing. BMW has taken the plunge and is incorporating gear from Universal Robots in the assembly line together with humans.

It's interesting that BMW feels that this is more a workplace and job quality issue than a cost savings issue. The work these robots do is heavy labor, and they make light work of it. BMW is testing robots more like Baxter that can act as assistants to the workers by passing tools and parts. This says the automaker's confidence in cracking the safety issue is very high.

Universal has also addressed the programming issue. It has a state-of-the-moment tablet interface that works with the same sort of learning by example as Baxter.

The Foxconn effort should put a million robots to work on making all those phones and tablets. Foxconn sees this as a way to reduce costs as China's workforce becomes more expensive. There's a lesson here: Robots tend to have the same capital cost worldwide. The logistics chain, mix balancing, and quality issues tend to push for assembly nearer the customer (as in the auto industry), so it's conceivable that robots will trigger an onshoring process for electronics assembly, both in the US and Europe.

The price and safety improvements are giving a major new impetus to robot use. It will impact a lot more than electronica and autos.

23 comments on “The Rise of the Robot

  1. SunitaT
    November 28, 2013

    The Foxconn effort should put a million robots to work on making all those phones and tablets.

    @Jim, thanks for the post. No doubt robots helps the companies to improve the productivity but I think it will also create lot of unemployment. Companies should make sure that the existing employees doesnt get impacted.

  2. SP
    November 28, 2013

    Robots are machines and they behave or act in a preprogrammed way, its definitely very dangerous if they get into a situation which does not exist in their program they cannot take decision. This is what differentiates a human from robot, they normally stay away from putting themselves or others in hazardous situation. But with all the bad part of robots being known, in a manufacturing line or monotonous process robots will definitely find an application. Human may find it boring to do the same thing again and again in the same process. I see lot of future for robots.

  3. ahdand
    November 28, 2013

    What I feel is that dealing with robots will be a bit dangerous since they are pre-programmed and if something goes wrong no one knows what will happen next. Also in a crisis situation the robot cannot support 100% since it does not have a brain as the humans do.      

  4. Houngbo_Hospice
    November 28, 2013

    @nimantha.d: What happens if something goes wrong with humans?Human's madness can lead to destructive wars, but we have learnt to live with that reality. So let hope that if anything goes wrong with robots, we will know how to deal with it.

  5. prabhakar_deosthali
    November 29, 2013

    Since Robots are created and programmed by the humans, if anything goes wrong with the robot then the humans who programmed it are to be blamed and not the robots. If an unforeseen situation occurs then also it the humans who designed that robot need to be blamed and not the robot.

    Even in the manual assembly line, the humans who performed the assembly jobs are trained only in limited operations. Anything beyond that and they also cannot handle the situation and normally a supervisor has to intervene.

    Just see how the lady at a cash counter in a shopping mall gets confused when some out of routine correction is to be made in the bill or a situation where the cash register is not working and she has to calculate the bill manually – In all probability she just cannot handle it !

  6. JimOReilly
    November 29, 2013

    All robots need a big red off-button, and it helps to know where the circuit breaker is , too!

  7. JimOReilly
    November 29, 2013

    I understand China has labor shortages, with people in the wrong places to work. Still, there will be turmoil if this becomes widespread, espceially as the economic advantage of China will evaporate…Robots in the US or Europe????

  8. ahdand
    November 30, 2013

    @Jim: Very true but I prefer a remote control more.  Then its easy to operate from where ever you are.       

  9. JimOReilly
    November 30, 2013

    Remote controls aren't failsafe. Someone will let the battery go flat!

  10. Adeniji Kayode
    November 30, 2013

    @tirlapur And how will they be able to do that when it is generally belieeved that robots will do more in less time and human being sometimes get tired or bored doing the same thing over and over again. Some workers would definitely be treated as an expendible asset if that company plan to use more robots to boost their production

  11. Lavender
    December 1, 2013

    Adeniji, indeed some jobs will be created to run robot. But as all robots are similar, an engineer can control dozens of, or hundreds if robots with a computer, there are still more unemployment. 

  12. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 31, 2013

    @SP, i would hope that robots, with the ability to do repeatable tasks, would be able to free up humans do do things that take thought, creativity and the ability to think and act independantly. I know there is often a concern for the workers, but i hope its a good thing.

  13. SunitaT
    February 22, 2014

    Breakthrough research and development in robotics will surely bring more speed, smoothness and fewer errors in sophisticated and intricate jobs. It might affect the general workforce but looking at the brighter side it would create newer jobs, such as robot designers, robo-guards (to avoid robot-accidents) and others. Remember how the industrial revolution swept off men from the fields but placed them in rollers and cranes??

  14. JimOReilly
    February 22, 2014

    It's a good point. Still, will our education system meet the need?

  15. Adeniji Kayode
    February 22, 2014

    @tirlapur, I,m not sure if any company that wants to be on the cutting edge would make such promise to their labour force that the introduction of robots will not lead to unemployment.

  16. Adeniji Kayode
    February 23, 2014

    @ Lily, I certainly agree with you, there is no way robots would do more work for us that somd people would not go jobless. Even if we all pick up a career in robotic engineering, many people will still not have work to do.

  17. Adeniji Kayode
    February 23, 2014

    @Hailey, certainly yes, robots are good. A homebot made by LG to clean rug is an excellent machine that can help you clean your rug even when you are not at home and also saves time is definitely a good thing but for a period of till, that takes away a job opportunity for your human cleaner which will have to spend time to find another job if at all he finds someone that does not have the robot or spend time changing his career so as to earn a living.

  18. Adeniji Kayode
    February 23, 2014

    @tirlapur, You are right, I,m so sure we have so many robot engineers or robot coordinators in different applications but much more than that, we should expect to see more people pick up careers in this field as robots find more acceptances and applications in our daily life.

  19. Adeniji Kayode
    February 23, 2014

    @Jim, Of course, our educational system brought us this far, and will rather expand and develop if need be to take us beyond.

  20. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    March 13, 2014

    @Jim, i suspect that the educational system is going to have to scramble to keep up but i'm optimistic about the chances of success. I'm seeing a lot of evolution in the educational system.

  21. JimOReilly
    March 13, 2014

    Once we get away from the testing mentality of the “Every child left behind Act”, I think there is a huge creative urge among good teachers to expand the ways they teach and to use high tech to get lessons across.

    This won't be the province of the textbook vendors. School districts are coming together to create their own courseware, saving enough cash to pay for a lot of the electronics in the process.

    We need the politicians to get out of the way, and to ignore the importunings of the vendors and the unions. Teaching shoul;d be the responsibility of the teachers!

  22. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    March 25, 2014

    I've also seen good leverage by teachers around using learning web sites created by external sources… Why reinvent the wheel if it's available for free to you?

  23. JimOReilly
    March 25, 2014

    Teachers need a clearing house for information on available courseware to mske the process easier.

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