As Americans return to work after summer vacations and Labor Day, many news outlets have focused on reports predicting that automation will threaten millions of jobs. However, the truth is more complicated, with an aging workforce, shortages of high-skilled employees, and the need for manufacturers of all sizes to be globally competitive driving robotics adoption.
The Robot Report spoke with Joe Gemma, chief regional officer for the Americas at KUKA Robotics Corp., the Township, Mich.-based subsidiary of German automation leader KUKA AG. He is also a past president of the International Federation of Robotics. Gemma asserted that automation is not the cause of labor and productivity challenges for manufacturers but rather the solution.
Gemma: There is no statistical information that proves that automation is reducing opportunities. Every time robot sales go up in the past few years, unemployment has gone down.
Sure, manufacturing is changing, but that has been true since the mechanization of agriculture to today’s global industry — jobs change, but work doesn’t disappear.
Just a few decades ago, Microsoft, Apple, and Google didn’t exist, and today they employ tens of thousands of people. You could have built a telephone on your own once, but technology enables us to build smartphones so that everybody can carry at least one. That increase in labor productivity is the main benefit of robotics and automation.
When companies invest in robots, they usually cut costs and pass the savings back to consumers, as well as some back to shareholders and workers. Without automation, we couldn’t afford cars if they were built in the same way, as birth rates change and baby boomers retire.
What role does robotics play in filling the skills gap in manufacturing labor?
Gemma: Because many people are trading jobs but aren’t looking at manufacturing, we’ve got a bigger skills gap there [than in other industries]. In some mature areas, such as welding, we’ve heard that businesses would hire “double-digit” numbers of people if they could.
Manufacturers are looking for people who can operate CNC machines and touchscreen interfaces, so it’s no longer dull, dirty, or dangerous work. Thanks to rapidly developing technologies, factories are nicer environments to work in, and they’re more challenging in using skills.
There has been a paradigm shift from five to 10 years ago. Now, when I say I work in robotics, people say, “That’s great.” As people get more comfortable with tech in their lives, such as the Roomba or automated shuttles in airports, they accept it more.
There’s also the wage-increase myth. Companies may not be paying the same dollar value in wage increases as in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but the total benefits including health insurance outweigh those of the past.
Many companies across the U.S. have made big investments in infrastructure and training and don’t want to move, so they need to continue improving productivity and retaining the existing workforce’s knowledge.
Doesn’t getting more people into engineering and robotics require different labor policies and education priorities?
Gemma: We’d like to see the U.S. government move more aggressively. Some low-wage workers don’t have the financial ability to get training, but in many other countries such as China, Japan, Thailand, Germany, and France, companies get government support for training initiatives. Robot density — the number of robots per 10,000 workers — is also high in those countries.
We need more partnerships like ARM [Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing], and there needs to be more education of robotics suppliers like KUKA, manufacturers, and the government. The U.S. could do more with tax incentives for R&D and training.
The past few generations have wanted a white-collar future for their children, but the cost of education and growing demand in manufacturing could change that.
KUKA has put together a curriculum for high schools, tech schools, and colleges that teaches the basics of automation in terms of trajectory and motion planning, interfacing with a PLC [programmable logic controller], and consistency in what students learn.
Before, an individual teacher or school would put together a lesson plan, but it would be different from what others were teaching or what the industry was doing. Other major OEMs have followed suit, so it’s great to get some consistency for training and retraining labor.
We want to give people opportunities to learn new skills across a standardized educational environment.
How are robots evolving to help workers? What has KUKA observed in global manufacturing?
Gemma: KUKA and other suppliers are designing pre-engineered systems to make it easier for manufacturers to get into robotics.
Ease of use is another big one, from both a mechanical side and a software side. We want to get to a point where using a robot is intuitive, like using a cellphone.
There are global shifts in equipment usage. South Korea has the highest robot density by far. China is the highest user of robots and is the fastest growing because of consumer demand, labor costs are going up, and the need to augment the cost of manufacturing. It’s also developing its own industry.
Production is migrating to other parts of the world as automation becomes easier to use — not just robots, but also CNC machines and additive manufacturing — and it becomes more robust, easier to interface with one another, and more mobile. This greater availability makes it more affordable for lower-wage countries to compete and allows for a more level playing field.
While collaborative robot arms or cobots are a growing area, how big does KUKA see it?
Gemma: Some have visions of tens of thousands of collaborative robots being sold, but I’ve said there’s no such thing as collaborative robots, only collaborative applications. If you put a feather in a cobot’s gripper, that’s entirely different than a razor blade.
There are many other applications that are collaborative that are not using speed and separation like a collaborative robot, while others, like Veo Robotics, are using sensors to enable robots to recognize when people are in an environment and keep them safe.
There are some applications for cobots working alongside people, but if most automation is about trying to get more productivity through speed and volume, you don’t want to limit those things.
With automotive demand falling, how does that affect KUKA’s plans?
Gemma: KUKA has been a leader in the automotive market globally, and we see ebbs and flows of that industry. Five years ago, that was about 75% of our business. We’ve deliberately worked to diversify by investing in electronics manufacturing, which has grown dramatically to 45% in 2018. While that has also slowed in the past year, we expect it to continue to grow.
The automotive industry is cyclical, and as with the transition from power transmission to electric transmission, we need to invest in current and future technologies. While it’s not like the aerospace market, which plans ahead 20 years, electric and autonomous vehicles are coming, so there will be investment.
How does the ongoing trade conflict between the U.S. and China affect KUKA?
Gemma: We’re a subsidiary of the German organization, and there has been no impact to us at this point. While our major shareholders are at Midea, all our interactions are with Germany for engineering, services, and support.
However, some of our customers have seen costs dramatically impacted. It could benefit us or hurt us. One company had to close a plant and reduce staff significantly.
In late spring, China indicated that it might levy a 25% tariff on robotics products from the U.S. That wouldn’t directly affect KUKA, but it could affect robot builders and systems integrators from the U.S. in China.
KUKA recently released a mobile manipulator for chip handling. How do you see demand for that capability?
Gemma: Mobility is a game changer. If you can move a robot to an area where a process is happening, rather than the other way around, it gives an opportunity for collaboration to see more growth. It’s more scalable for specific applications.
Mercedes has used mobility in one plant, and it wanted to scale as it grew. Traditionally, there was a monorail or overhead rail, so there was no way to extend easily.
With fleet management, you can be more flexible, and companies in industries that wouldn’t have considered automation in the past are now using this technology.
Speaking of other industries, how much growth does KUKA expect in healthcare robotics?
Gemma: Because of our product portfolio, we ventured into healthcare earlier than other industrial automation providers. We’ve worked in surgical and massage therapy applications.
We are investing in pharmaceuticals, medical device manufacturing, and drug discovery. We don’t see that diminishing with aging populations, and we see growth opportunities in the broad area of healthcare.
The Robot Report has launched the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo focuses on improving the design, development and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum.
What about food processing and preparation?
Gemma: People are starting to look at ways to take advantage of the demand, since the market is five times the size of the automotive space. We’re certainly looking at the food processing side, but we haven’t invested heavily in it yet.
It’s a challenging environment, where the need to keep equipment germ-free is quite aggressive, and it can shorten the lifespan of equipment. Even stainless steel, which is heavy, can corrode. We don’t make a stainless steel robot right now.
Once it’s packaged, we’re in it. We’re doing some egg handling with soft robotics and are working on technology to augment our ability to grasp apples and peaches.
Are you watching emerging technologies such as 5G, and how does robotics as a service (RaaS) fit into your offerings?
Gemma: We were an early leader in Industry 4.0 and connected equipment, and we expect to continue to lead in digitalization.
We are seeing more and more interest in RaaS from medium-size companies. Larger companies have different financing models. We do have a model to support something in the near future, but we’re still feeling that out.
As an industry, we’re working with associations to get a higher level of understanding about the benefits of automation, which has helped labor. We’d like to see closer collaboration on government policy that would help the U.S. to be globally competitive.