Managers of the future

Robots are having a huge impact on the economy and providing benefits beyond what was once imaginable--but also creating new challenges to overcome.

[This editorial originally appeared in the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) World Robot Report 2013]

It is always hard to look into the future and see exactly what it might bring, but if one thing is certain it is that robots will be an integral part of that future, entering parts of the economy and our personal lives that a few years ago we could only imagine.

Over the last several decades we have seen robots go from incredibly expensive machines with limited functionality to today’s modern industrial robots that can do amazing things and offer a quick return on investment—something ABB is proud to continue to play a key role in. Increasingly we even find robots doing everything from vacuuming floors and assisting the elderly to entertaining at concerts and diffusing bombs on the battlefield.

Through movies, marketing and everyday experience, robots have become a normal part of real life.

Not only have these robots started working their way into every aspect of our daily routines, they have also reduced injuries in the workplace, increased the competitiveness of companies in a fierce global market, elevated the quality of affordable products, increased profits for countless businesses, and created a whole new ecosystem of high-paying and rewarding jobs.

Of all the points above, it is the last one that strikes a particular feeling of hopefulness for robotics companies like ABB. While many detractors have sounded an alarm of the job-stealing robotic world of the future, real-life experience is showing us otherwise. According to a recent IFR report, the evidence is that in the countries that have adopted the largest share of robots, unemployment has actually declined over time—meaning there is a positive relationship between robot adoption and job creation.

In fact, as the IFR report notes, between 2000 and 2008 the robotics industry created 8-10 million new jobs, either directly or indirectly. That’s more than 1 million jobs globally per year. Although the economic recovery has stalled job growth on all fronts, the prediction is that between now and 2020 another 4 million jobs will be created in this “robot ecosystem.”

This is a far more hopeful situation than some would have you believe. Indeed, the robot economy of the future presents some challenges, but at ABB we find these challenges exciting. In particular we can divide these challenges into the two broad groups of economic and technical, as outlined below.

Economic challenges

Based on a huge body of evidence, experience and common sense, it is clear that the companies that adopt robots realize huge financial benefits. More than any other action businesses can take, integrating robots can increase productivity, reduce overhead, provide flexibility, reduce waste, and increase quality—in some cases improving these metrics by orders of magnitude.

Along with these benefits, however, come some economic challenges. As the IFR study notes, many new jobs are created by robots, however these jobs require skill sets that are sometimes hard to find among the existing population of workers. In fact, it could be said that the needed job skills of this robotic future will change dramatically versus the current mix of skills that are out there—and these job skills will be different for all levels of operation.

For instance, the managers of the future will have to be well-versed in robot operations, service and logistics, as well as be able to train new operators. At the same time they will likely have a reduced emphasis on what are traditionally known as “people skills.” In fact, for every position within the “robot ecosystem,” training or re-training will need to be considered. And for those individuals either out of work or just joining the workforce, systems and institutions need to be in place to ensure they get the right counseling when thinking of how to enter or re-enter the job market.

While the financial benefits to companies adopting robots are well-established, it is clear that an economy based on robots still needs to work for humans. And although there will be many new jobs created, the major challenge we see will be in re-training the workforce.

Technical challenges

As robots find their way into an increasing number of distinct applications, they will inevitably find themselves working alongside humans, sometimes within a matter of a few centimeters or inches. This will be especially pronounced during a transition phase in which robots are still incapable of perfectly reproducing human dexterity, but have enough dexterity and ability to work with delicate objects that they can take over some but not all of the jobs that currently require a human touch. The growing need for small parts assembly is a perfect example, with the electronics market leading the charge in this regard.

The industry, working in conjunction with lawmakers and regulators around the planet, will need to agree on ways to mitigate the inherent risks of human interaction with robots, by developing new global standards governing this interaction as well as innovating new solutions to meet these standards.

Ease of deployment and programming is also a large technical challenge that the industry is grappling with. As more and more companies find that robots are within their affordability range, it is clear that one of the final barriers to adoption is the perceived complexity of programming and designing robotic systems. At ABB we feel very strongly that a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) programming interface is one of the main ways to overcome this barrier.

Our PC-based RobotStudio offline programming solution has been around for many years now and continues to make the design and commissioning phase much simpler than in the past. When combined with an increasing number of standardized “off-the-shelf” products for the most popular robotic applications, offline programming can be harnessed for maximum efficiency and provide the fastest time to start of production.

We also envision a future in which companies that depend on robots will be able to manage them and the teams that rely on them from any device, anywhere with an Internet connection to simplify all stages of robot interaction (design, sales, installation, commissioning, operation, oversight, and service).

The last piece of the technical challenge puzzle involves the tools that allow robots to interact with the world around them, including advanced sensing and advanced gripping. In order to allow robots to do all the jobs that they are well suited for, they will need to develop more “human-like” abilities to find, identify and manipulate objects.

When combined with powerful processing capability, tools like force control and advanced 2D and 3D vision will create a kind of robotic “independence” and allow the robot to make “decisions” about what to do when it encounters the inevitable hiccups that arise in everyday operation. Already ABB has developed a new generation of Integrated Force Control and Integrated Vision to help make these advanced technologies available to more and more end-users.

And while robots are certainly capable of very precise and repeatable movements, when it comes to things like small parts assembly all that precision is useless without the ability to handle tiny objects with dexterity. In this regard, end of arm tooling is needed that mimics the human hand as much as possible with its touch, flexibility, care and speed.

Certainly these challenges are not small matters, but they are nothing to worry about. In fact, the industry and governments around the world have already begun addressing them in substantial ways. They present exciting opportunities and should be embraced. Instead of reviling robots as job stealers, we should recognize that they are the future and create policies that encourage robotic growth but that also ensure the robotic.

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About the author

Per Vegard Nerseth

As the Head of the Robotics Business Unit at ABB, Per Vegard is deep into the world of automation. Since he joined ABB in 2000, he has seen the robotics industry change quite dramatically—from some very high points to low points during tough economic times and then back again, his experience straddles it all.
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