Rise of the machines: ProMat 2013 spotlights manufacturing robotics

Brenda Cole

CHICAGO -- As single-digit temperatures transformed the Windy City into the Freezing Windy City on Monday, thousands of undeterred attendees and exhibitors filled the grand ballroom and show floors of McCormick Place for ProMat 2013. With a nod to the scores of whirring, intelligent machines that will be demonstrating their skills over the next few days, opening keynote speaker Dr. Henrik Christensen painted manufacturing robotics as the potential savior of U.S. factory jobs rather than a threat to them.

As KUKA chair of robotics and director of robotics at Georgia Tech, Christensen has spent much of his career studying how robots can be used to optimize distribution flow and boost manufacturing efficiency. During the keynote, he shook his head at recent media speculation that the growth of robotics will lead to massive job losses.

Christensen pointed to the new reshoring efforts from consumer product giants such as Apple -- which announced plans to return iMac manufacturing to the U.S. -- as evidence that companies are still willing to invest in manufacturing jobs. Another example, Christensen said, is the Tesla Roadster smart car, which is made in the U.S. using new automation and robotics technology.

"We need to think about how we can leverage this technology, because once we have it, it isn't only about use in manufacturing, but the whole supply chain," Christensen said. "It's all of this around [robotics] that's helping us regrow these areas."

Robotics use cases span warehouses and beyond

Autonomous, or self-driving, cars might have been made famous by Google, but they have surprising potential in distribution, Christensen said. "There are shipping companies that have put forth the mission that 10 years from now, their distribution trucks will be autonomous," he explained. But these trucks would still have a human on board -- albeit one relegated to the back of the vehicle to unload shipments. "If you don't have a requirement of a driver's license, his salary goes down significantly, so in this case having an autonomous truck makes business sense," Christensen said.

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In the warehouse, robotic material-handling systems such as those from Kiva -- recently acquired by Amazon -- have cut down on the miles of daily walking once required to move a package from one end of the facility to the other. "Now, the picker stands still and all of those things come to you, which increases the number of packages you can pick significantly," Christensen said. "At the same time, when you don't have to have people running around the warehouse, your [storage] density goes up. Because you have higher density, you can use less space," which is an expensive commodity in areas such as New York, Boston and Chicago, he added.

Manufacturing robotics faces adoption hurdles

Christensen outlined some of the biggest challenges facing the industry that could be solved with the help of robotics. They include bringing manufacturing home to the U.S. and empowering small and medium-sized businesses that could be reluctant to adopt new technologies. But he stressed that there are also obstacles in the way of manufacturing robotics adoption -- and cost is king.

"When I ask the big manufacturers what they want, they ask, 'Can you save us a buck?'" he said. Fortunately, manufacturing robotics options are less expensive than ever, according to Christensen. He pointed to Rethink Robotics' "Baxter" model as an example. It can perform sensitive, repetitive production tasks for a relatively small price tag of $22,000.

Ease of deployment is another major hurdle, Christensen added. "Going forward, we need to know how these technologies can be deployed by companies with very few people," he said. "We want in-process inspection. We need to make it cheap and very simple to automate, so that anyone can do this. These technologies need to be immediately accessible, because manufacturers can't afford to send someone out on a robot training course for a month."

A prevalence of wireless manufacturing and distribution facilities will also be required for robotics to grow, according to Christensen. An example is GE's recently announced "industrial Internet," which will add networking and distributed intelligence capabilities to smart meters, grid control systems and enterprise IT systems, all hosted in a cloud environment.

The future of manufacturing robotics will in large part be determined by how interested younger generations of workers are in using it, Christensen explained. "The average 20-year-old male has spent close to a year playing first-person video games. They're wired for using game pads. Right now, there are very few interfaces that look like that. They look more like something designed by a 40-year-old engineer. We need to empower young people when they enter the workforce."

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