The global reaction to robotic advances in manufacturing oscillate between stunned awe, references to Judgement Day, and the fear that AI will soon render many of us jobless. The benefits of automation to industry have been discussed ad nauseam over recent years, and while proponents spruik the efficiency savings and capacity implications, the wary fear mass-queuing at Centrelink offices around the country. There are those, however, who envision a friendly middle-ground; a collaboration between robots and humans, for the greater good. Introducing: Cobots.
The World Robotics Report 2016, which was released by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) states that another 1.4 million robots will be in use by 2019, in factories across the world. The growth rate of ‘cobots’ is exponential, and perhaps unsurprisingly, is only continuing to gain momentum as manufacturers look for ways to increase their productivity and lower costs.
Prof. Alexander Verl, Chairman of IFR Research Committee highlights his organisation’s emphasis on working together, with the human workforce, towards these goals. As he explains:
“It’s an important part for robotics, because robots can interact with people. This symbiotic human-robot collaboration has a big future. We’re getting more and more examples [of] where this works.”
Like many robotics enthusiasts, he seeks to allay fears around the take-over of the human workforce by this technology; claiming robots simply help to complete jobs humans find difficult or impossible, while allowing workers to move into more complex roles and away from menial tasks.
Further to Professor Verl’s assertions, IFR president Joe Gemma purports a direct relationship between growth in robotics and positive employment growth:
“More specifically, from 2010 – 2015, and this is historically correct in the US market, if you look at every period where robots increase, unemployment goes down. When unemployment goes up, robots go down. And that’s historically correct for the last 30 – 40 years.”
We’re not sure where he gets his figures from, but this would seem to resolve the issue of the ever-growing threat of robots on the homo sapiens worker, if he is correct. There are more recent reports, however, which would throw shade on this argument. One such study includes that recently released out of the United States by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets claims that robotics not only threaten jobs, but lower wages. This double-whammy is explained in an article by The Register (‘biting the hand that feeds IT’) as follows:
“Using the researcher’s preferred parameters, one more robot per thousand workers reduces aggregate employment to population ratio by about 0.34 percentage points. In other words, every new robot added to a given commuting zone reduces employment by 5.6 workers. And the researchers project that the number of industrial robots will reach between 4 and 6 million by 2025.
If the number of industrial robots quadruples by 2025, the researchers expect 0.94 to 1.76 per cent lower employment-to-population ratio and 1.3 to 2.6 per cent lower wage growth between 2015 and 2025.”
This study and others like it, perhaps miss the point which robotics fanatics would seek to assert: that automation ultimately makes things cheaper, meaning lowering the cost of living, and creating more jobs by supporting industry growth.
Hoping to foster collaboration between people and robots, Universal Robots is heartened by the 2016 Work Robotics report that cobots are gaining in popularity, and allowing smaller players in manufacturing to jump on board.
“As the market leader of the cobot industry, Universal Robots welcomes the report which confirms the validity of our mission: lowering barriers and enabling automation in areas previously considered too complex or costly,” says Chief Commercial Officer of Universal Robots, Daniel Friis.”Our installed base of more than 10,000 cobots worldwide illustrates the dramatic growth potential of this game-changing automation technology. We enable small and medium-sized enterprises to optimise their competitiveness on the global stage with an average robot payback period of just 195 days.”
Industries such as automotive, plastics and electronics are key areas of growth for Universal Robots and their kin; however uptake is expected to increase across the board for the manufacturing sector in general. China and the USA are markets of great promise for robotics. And other developing nations are increasingly picking up on the trend, hoping to gain a foothold on the technology to keep down costs and boost their outputs. As the demand for consumer goods rises each year, with a rapidly growing global population, as well as the expanding wealth of developing nations, there is no doubt robotics will play a huge role in meeting this appetite.
The key to success, for employment around the globe, is in training the upcoming generation to work with, and learn to build upon these technologies; as the landscape of manufacturing, as well as construction, farming, retail and even education are being permanently remodelled by robotics and automation. In aid of this growing need, and to meet their corporate responsibility objectives, Universal Robotics offers free online training; giving users the ability to learn to program their robots. That at least, shows a willingness to work with the human workforce, and not against them; a positive sign for all.