Robotics has come a long way from when they first hit factory floors in the early 1960s. Today’s robots are more intelligent and versatile, and able to go to work with little to no human intervention. And, like anything that’s not fully understood, the rapid advancement and adoption of robotics has produced everything from the fear of "they’re taking over!" to the fear of "we're missing out and we can’t afford them."
So let’s delve into, and dispel, the three most common myths about advanced robotics.
Robots Are Expensive
Most manufacturers understand that robotics can help them make things faster and cheaper, and keep competition at bay. But many, especially small- to-medium size manufacturers, worry about the expense of advanced robotics.
Instead of focusing on the cost of robots, manufacturers should instead think about the Return on Investment (ROI). Robots are used in every industry because they save manufacturers money. RK Logistics Group in Livermore, California recently brought robotics to their warehouses, and have reported significant savings following six months of continuous operation. The robots operate alongside their human coworkers, making them more efficient and productive by eliminating simple tasks. “Within a few short months we saw a full ROI on our implementation,” says Cindy Traver, Senior Director of Operations. “We are able to pass the savings from this initiative on to our consumers.”
If stories like these are not incentive enough, Dr. Howie Choset of the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute (ARM) emphasizes the importance of automation with robotics for small companies. “Automate or evaporate,” he says. “[Small companies that] don’t embrace automation will not be around in the future.” And to help manufacturers embrace robotics, ARM is heavily investing in not just the technology, but the training of workers.
With analysts predicting that the industrial robotics market will nearly triple in less than ten years—with smarter, safer collaborative robots (“cobots”) making up a large part of that—there is no better time for manufacturers to get in the robotics game.
Robots Are Job-Takers
From books such as I, Robot to movies like WALL-E, it seems that we are obsessed with the idea of a robot revolution—and a little frightened by it. In fact, more than 70% of Americans fear robots taking over their jobs and lives. And while it’s true that advanced robotics eliminate some manufacturing jobs, it also is creating them.
“Pessimists often assume that robots can do most jobs, when in fact they can’t,” says Robert D. Atkinson of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). “[They also assume that] once a job is lost there are no second-order job-creating effects from increased productivity and spending.”
Aside from creating new jobs, robotics can also help bring back US manufacturing jobs that had been lost overseas—especially to China. The “Red Dragon of Asia” has emerged as the largest growth market for robotics, bringing in more than two times the amount of industrial robots as American companies. “We need to embrace this disruption if we want to avoid being taken out of the game altogether,” says University of Colorado professor Nikolaus Correll, Computer Science Professor.
Robots Are Complicated
Sure, they’re complicated to create. But the creators are working hard to make them easy to program and operate with the goal of making robots accessible to those who aren’t roboticists (a term coined by author Isaac Asimov that is now a real thing). In fact, programming robots can be easy enough that workers displaced by a robot may end up operating it.
To understand just how simple programming can be, one need look no further than Cozmo. Created by San Francisco-based company Anki, Cozmo is a programmable robot that lowers the bar for programming from “high school whiz kids to grade school children.” A brief look at Cozmo in action shows how this technology could be applied in today’s manufacturing environment.
Advanced robotics should be embraced, not feared. They’re making the manufacturing space safer and more efficient, and helping US manufacturers compete with companies overseas. Best of all, they’re becoming less expensive, providing new opportunities for small- and medium-sized manufacturers. Steve Wozniak once said he was afraid of humans becoming robots’ pets; but today he’s changed his tune, stating “I believe optimistically that the robots we’re building are going to help us have better human lives.”
So if the co-founder of Apple can get rid of his fear of robots taking over, why shouldn’t you?