A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 12, 2016

The Latest Factory Robots Are Trained To Collaborate With Workers

It is increasingly apparent that optimizing manufacturing means establishing the right mix of skills and responsibilities between workers and robots.

That research is becoming more focused - and the results more demonstrable - leading, as the following article explains, to a growing market for collaborative robots. JL

Andrew Tangel reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The market for collaborative robots will grow to more than $1 billion by 2020, up from $95 million in world-wide sales last year. Programmable robots have assumed repetitive tasks, working in concert with their human colleagues.
A new worker is charming the staff at Whirlpool Corp. ’s plant here: a robot called Chappy.
Employees at the dryer factory say they have taken a shine to one-armed, programmable robots that have assumed some repetitive tasks, working in concert with their human colleagues. One, nicknamed after a worker whose rote duties it has inherited, snaps photographs to scan for defects.
“If I can get some help doing my job, I’m all for that,” said Karen “Chappy” Beidler, who is now free to focus on checking and fixing wiring connections. “It’s technology helping manpower—you can’t beat it.”
Whirlpool and other companies are reshaping their factory floors around “collaborative robots” that can stop if a person bumps into them. That precaution allows them to operate in tight spaces with little or no protective boundary.
Collaborative robots stack spare tires and apply hot glue inside Chevrolet Sonics and Buick Veranos at the General Motors Co. plant in Lake Orion, Mich. They help install doors and windshields at BMW AG ’s plant in Spartanburg, S.C. They smooth riveted parts on 787 jets at a Boeing Co. factory in Australia and may do so soon at a plant in Charleston, S.C.
Economists attribute a long-term decline in U.S. factory jobs in part to automation, but manufacturing executives say the latest automation trend isn’t intended to cut head count. Rather, it is aimed at improving safety and increasing productivity. And as robots help manufacturers increase efficiency, the executives say, they make U.S. factories more competitive versus countries with cheaper wages. If lower costs leads to more sales, factories could expand and add more of the higher skill jobs that remain.
North American manufacturers installed more than 28,000 robots last year, according to the Robotic Industries Association. Collaborative robots likely make up just a fraction of the total, but the trade group plans to track their sales as companies such as Fanuc Corp. and Yaskawa Electric Corp. release new models. ABI Research predicts the market for collaborative robots will grow to more than $1 billion by 2020, up from about $95 million in world-wide sales last year.
Fanuc America has sold fewer than 100 of the devices since the company began selling them about a year ago, said Rick Maxwell, director of engineering. But Mr. Maxwell predicted sales of collaborative models could grow significantly. “There’s a tremendous amount of interest out there.”
Jeff Burnstein, the robotic association’s president, said the machines are helping U.S. manufacturers compete against cheaper labor abroad. But he said they have limits, too. They aren’t as strong as bigger robots, and because they move more slowly to keep their human neighbors safe, they aren’t always as efficient.
“There are a lot of applications they’re just not suited for,” Mr. Burnstein said.
Panther Global Technologies, a Wixom, Mich.-based maker of crankshafts and other components for yard tools such as chain saws, used the new robots to increase the efficiency of its U.S. plant. Next year, Chief Executive Don Leith plans to close one of Panther’s two plants in China and bring about 40 jobs back to the U.S., about a decade after he laid off much of his American workforce and moved production overseas.
“Without them it would have been impossible,” Mr. Leith said of the robots.
Universal Robots AS of Denmark sells one-arm robots for up to $45,000. This type of robot can work around the clock, taking the place of workers on three shifts. The average production worker makes $36,220 year, not including overtime, health and other benefits, according to the Labor Department. Manufacturing executives also say the robots save on materials costs because they apply materials like glue more efficiently. Executives say the robots also spare their workers from monotonous, laborious tasks that can cause injuries. Factory workers are the most likely to be injured at work by repetitive motion, the Labor Department says, and manufacturing ranks high among workplaces for injuries stemming from lifting and lowering.
“There is certainly a productivity benefit, but we are seeing so many other benefits,” said Jim Keppler, Whirlpool’s vice president of integrated supply chain and quality for North America. He wouldn’t say how much the robots have reduced costs.
Mr. Keppler said workers will be reassigned as new robots assume some of their tasks. While Whirlpool has seen labor savings and other benefits, Mr. Keppler said collaborative robots can’t do everything. “These robots are never going to replace our workforce,” he said.
At Whirlpool’s factory in Marion, eight collaborative robots help 2,200 employees churning out about 18,000 dryers a day. Alongside checking the back of dryers for faults, they move large drums, install motors and test lint traps.
Leaders at Whirlpool’s dryer factory are evaluating more than 40 tasks collaborative robots might be able to do.
“Right now we’re scratching the surface,” Mr. Keppler said.


Post a Comment