What Is the Manufacturing Skills Gap, and How Do You Close It? Part I

The skills gap in manufacturing has been dominating headlines and conference session topics as the issue moves from prediction to reality.

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Part I – The Effects of Retiring Workers

Now that the baby boomers are retiring in large numbers and there aren’t enough people with the skills or interest to fill open positions, the skills gap is here. This series of blog posts examines causes and solutions.

Three main causes contribute to the skills gap:

1 – Retirement of older workers (the baby boom generation)

2 – Lack of skilled workers

3 – Lack of desire to work in manufacturing

Skilled Welders and Machinists Are Leaving the Workforce

Welding was an early indicator of the looming skills gap. Ten years ago, the American Welding Society issued a fact sheet about the welding shortage. A Feb 2007 update stated, “the average age of a welder is in the mid-fifties, with many approaching 60 years old. It is estimated that more than half of the industry’s highly trained workforce is nearing retirement, creating a potential shortage of more than 200,000 skilled welders by 2010.”

Welding isn’t the only area affected by the skill shortage. A 2016 Bloomberg article reported that almost half of Boeing’s Seattle-area machinists are 50 or older. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, machinists are one of the occupations adding the most jobs (projected 2012-2022). This is not the time to be losing skilled machinists.

Replacements Are Hard to Find

Multiple reasons contribute to the lack of skilled workers available to replace the baby boomers. Post-baby boom generations stayed away from manufacturing and the trades. The 2011 Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute “Boiling Point” report on the skills gap in U.S manufacturing says: “Exacerbating the issue is the stubbornly poor perception of manufacturing jobs among younger workers… among 18-24-year-olds, manufacturing ranks dead last among industries in which they would choose to start their careers.”

Apprenticeship programs in the United States decreased, leaving fewer opportunities to learn the necessary technical skills. As well, the required skills changed from when the baby boomers entered the work force. Not only are specialized skills like welding required, but soft skills like teamwork are increasingly necessary, as well as the ability to work with computers and information technology.
solve the skills gap in manufacturing

What Can Be Done?

To prevent an abrupt shift from having a full-time skilled worker here one day, gone the next, consider offering flexible arrangements like a transition to part-time hours, consulting work, or contract work as in-house trainers and mentors.

Whether their reasons are due to finances, a desire to extend employer healthcare benefits or just a desire to still be part of the work force, retirement-age employees may be more open to delayed retirement options and flexible arrangements than you might think. Even delaying retirement by a year or two can make a big difference, and give you the time needed to recruit and train new workers.

How can automation help fill the gap? Watch for an exploration of this question in the next post in this series.

5 Jobs Robots Can Do That Humans Don’t Want

Headlines about robots taking jobs are everywhere, but what exactly are those jobs, and do humans even want them?

Entering Unsafe Radiation Areas

The need for a non-human to enter dangerous radiation areas became a high priority after the damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011. Sciencemag reports that the maximum radiation levels discovered would have exceeded a human worker’s full year safety limits after exposure for less than one day. Military-grade robots had to be deployed to venture inside.

In the following years, development of robots to step over debris and access damaged, contaminated areas has increased. A Wall Street Journal video shows HUBO robot creator Professor Jun-Ho Oh explaining that they created the robot to deal with a radiation contaminated area.

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Hazardous Mining Jobs

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has tracked 76,000 deaths due to black lung disease since 1968. Breathing coal dust or risking being trapped in a collapse, cave-in, or a flooded mine is not a desirable job for a human.  Robots are welcome in mining to reduce hazards and to aid rescue operations

To be fair, not all mining jobs are so hazardous, and some less-hazardous jobs are also being automated.  As reported by MIT Technology Review, mining companies are taking advantage of automation to haul iron ore and drill. Just like other industries, automation eliminates some jobs while creating others such as maintaining the new equipment.

Low Wage Farm Work

US News reports that the specialty crop farm industry wants investments in mechanization and technology to offset labor shortages. Leaving the political debate about immigrant workers aside, what makes farm jobs unattractive? The New York Times cited a Georgia experiment using parolees to work farms that resulted in parolees quitting due to “intolerable working conditions.” The Bloomsburg Businessweek article Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs presented low wages, and back-breaking physical demands as reasons why the unemployed don’t want to pick produce, along with an attitude against doing farm work.

Picking soft fruits has been a challenge for robots, but new robotic strawberry pickers are already in field testing.

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Deburring and Other Repetitive Actions

Deburring is an excellent example of a repetitive, time-consuming, fatigue-inducing process prone to human error.  While flat parts are relatively easy to deburr using automation, curved pieces typically required traditional manual deburring. With robot end effectors becoming more sophisticated, they can adjust force to deburr rounded surfaces.

Dull Retail Tasks

What’s worse than searching for someone to help you find something in a retail store? Being the person on the floor who constantly has to answer the same questions over and over. With autonomous retail service robots, customers can “ask” the robot, receive a reply in their choice of languages, and even follow the robot to the location of the item in the store. Lowe’s is using the LoweBot in select stores, and reports that the robots allow employees more time to offer specialty knowledge and expertise.  By leaving the routine searches and repeated questions to robots, human workers have higher job satisfaction.

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Transition Time

Automation is not going to go away, and jobs with a shortage of available or willing workers will be prime targets for robotic solutions.  Ideally, people will benefit from safer, more interesting work. But, as with most technology changes, the transition will likely not be easy for everyone to accept.

compare 34 collaborative robots

What’s New in Robotics This Week – Aug 25

– Manufacturing & cobot roundup
– Experts call for robot weapons ban
– Pepper champions robot rites
– On being rude to robots.. and much more.

We hope that the news we have selected will interest and amuse you. Enjoy!

 

Manufacturing & Cobot Roundup 

Two European Union-funded projects designed to improve human-robot collaboration in industrial scenarios were profiled in Horizon this week. The An.Dy Project is examining ways that cobots can anticipate their human colleagues’ actions:

‘Ideally robots should be able to sense interactional forces, like carrying a table with someone,’ said Francesco Nori, who coordinates the EU-funded An.Dy project which aims to advance human-robot collaboration. ‘(Robots) need to know what the human is about to do and what they can do to help.’

The second project, called SecondHands and led by the UK’s Ocado Technology, is designed support the work of human support technicians:

Duncan Russell, research coordinator at Ocado Technology explained: ‘Parts need to be cleaned and parts need replacing. The robot system is being designed to help the technicians with those tasks.’ […]

‘The robot will understand instructions in regular language – it will be cleverer than you might expect,’ said Russell. ‘Ask it to pass the screw driver, and it will respond asking whether you meant the one on the table or in the toolbox.’

 

Japan wants to use automation, not immigration in response the problem of its aging demographics, says Bloomberg. South Korea is now the country with the highest robot density.

 

The Manufacturer explored the “three main misconceptions about cobots”:

1. Cobots are the only collaborative robots
2. Cobots can always work without safety caging
3. Cobots operate faster and are more productive than human workers

 

ROBO, the Exchange Traded Fund that tracks the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index, has surpassed $1 billion in assets under management in less than 4 years since its launch.

 

The World Robotics Conference is being held this week in Beijing. I’ll have more next week, but in the meantime…

How Robots Help the Consumer Goods Industry Adapt

Can small companies keep up with the new, demanding consumer? Here’s how robotics can help!

Consumer goods represent a huge industry, with some saying that it has been keeping the US economy afloat over the last couple of years. Consumer goods are any products which will be bought directly by the end user, including food, clothing, perfume, furniture, etc. They are distinct from “industrial goods” such as machinery and materials, and “capital goods” which are sold to other businesses for later processing.

Automation has been making its way into the consumer goods industry for some years now, particularly for packaging applications. Robotics is one of the key disruptive technologies that is turning the industry on its head. According to RIA, the food and consumer goods industry broke a record last year when it increased its robot orders by 32%.

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The Consumer Is Changing

Over the last decade or so, consumers have changed the way that they buy products. According to the World Economic Forum, a new empowered consumer is pushing the industry to operate differently. They demand a much higher level of control over their buying journey and want customized products with more engagement from producers.

The modern consumer now expects many producers and retailers to create an entire experience instead of just providing products. They want to get involved with producers by contributing to the companies themselves in some way (e.g. via crowdfunding), personalizing their own products or interacting with the companies via social media.

Some of these new demands require a fundamental shift in the way businesses build their products. Increased customization means that manufacturing processes need to be more flexible. More interaction with customers means that small businesses have less time to spend manufacturing their product. Robots are one way to move workers away from non-value-added tasks and onto tasks which fulfill the customer’s increased expectations.

This year, the World Economic Forum identified eight technologies which are expected to disrupt the retail and consumer packaged goods industry, some of which we have covered before:

  1. The Internet of Things
  2. Autonomous vehicles and drones
  3. AI and machine learning
  4. Robotics
  5. Digital traceability
  6. 3D printing
  7. Augmented reality
  8. Blockchain

Robotics Are Used in the Entire Supply Chain

Robotics can be used in three stages of the consumer goods supply chain, from manufacture to retail.

Robots in Manufacture

Robots can reduce the cost of manufacture and allow some processes to be run around the clock. This makes it feasible for smaller manufacturers to produce higher volumes of product to continue to grow the business without compromising quality. Collaborative robots provide an added benefit that they can be easily reprogrammed to new product designs, meaning that they fit perfectly with the trend towards product personalization.

Robots in Distribution

Logistics and warehousing have seen an increasing trend towards automation in recent years. Consumers are demanding more customized orders with shorter lead times. Traditional logistics solutions will increasingly struggle to meet these requirements so robots are starting to relieve some of the pressure. Collaborative robots are often used in packaging and palletizing applications, while robotic ground vehicles are used for autonomous warehousing.

Robots in Retail

At the customer-facing end of the industry, consumers are demanding more engagement with store staff. As they can easily buy a product online, people come to bricks-and-mortar shops to interact with a real person. This gives store staff less time to deal with stock. Robots are one way to free up staff and allow them to enhance the customer experience. So far, robotics at this stage is less established than at the other stages in the supply chain. However, robotic assistants seem likely in the near future — like Lowe’s NAVii robot which helps shoppers locate particular products in the store.

How Can Small Businesses Keep Up?

It’s easy to see how large providers of consumer goods, like Amazon, can keep up with the consumer trends. But, how can small manufacturers compete?

Companies who provide bespoke or artisan consumer goods could find it increasingly difficult to keep up with consumer demands whilst preserving the quality of their products. Robots can help to relieve the pressure on manufacturers, allowing them to engage more with their customers and work on new product design.

Lowercase is a New York-based start-up who design and manufacture artisan eyewear. They are one of the few eyewear manufacturers who operate entirely in the USA. We recently reported on them on the Robotiq blog and created a case study about them which you can download here.

The problem Lowercase faced was that their CNC machine was taking lot of their time. The machining process was labor intensive, with each pair of eyeglasses being removed and replaced twice in the machine. The task was repetitive and high volume. For a two-person team, it was starting to affect their ability to focus on other parts of the business.

As we showed in the case study, they invested in a Universal Robot to tend the CNC machine. The integrator taught them to program the robot, allowing them to easily adapt its operation to changes in their eyeglass design. This was vital as they had 17 different styles of eyeglass and needed to reprogram the robot on-the-fly.

Lowercase is a perfect example of a small consumer goods who are using robotics to help them keep up with the changing needs of customers. By incorporating a collaborative robot at the manufacturing stage of the supply chain, they are able to spend more time developing new designs and interacting with their customers.

Fanuc Releases a New Collaborative Robot: The Small Green Fanuc

Last year Fanuc launched a collaborative robot that has altered the previous perception of what a collaborative robot is. In fact, the CR-35iA (or as I like to call it: the Green Fanuc) was bigger than any other collaborative robot and was 3x time stronger than any other cobot on the market. Now Fanuc is launching a smaller version of this robot: The CR-7iA. 

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Fanuc is known for being one of the biggest robot manufacturers on the planet, though they are relatively new in the collaborative robot market. In fact with only one year of ‘shopfloor’ experience, they don’t have a lot of collaborative robots out in the wild. However, the fact that they are investing in R&D for releasing new cobot models only means one thing: Collaborative Robots is the future.

What I suspect is that the Fanuc CR-35iA even though it has had a lot of good hype around it, still has a large footprint and high payload. Perhaps end users are still a little skittish about putting such a large robot unfenced next to their workers, so that they preferred to choose smaller robots even though they are only able to carry lighter parts. Don’t forget that if you are carrying a heavy weight, you want your robot to be a little slower than with a small load. As you probably recognize, a heavy weight will cause more damage on impact than a smaller weight for a same speed. So in terms of safety, some users might prefer using a smaller robot to achieve a task. And this is where the CR-7iA comes into action.

Green Fanuc Family is Getting Bigger

When we visited IREX 2015, we saw that Fanuc was coming out with this smaller version of the CR-35iA. In fact, there were three robots talked about here: 2 robots with a 7 kg payload (one with 717 mm reach and the other with 911 mm reach) and a tiny version with a 4 kg payload and a 550 mm reach.

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With smaller robots, Fanuc will be covering a broad spectrum of robot payload and reach. This means that with one robot manufacturer, end users will be able to achieve almost any task they want.

Fanuc can easily develop new collaborative robot models, since they are simply adding a protective cover and force torque sensor at the base of one of their regular robots… and presto you have a cobot. Their development time is thus a lot shorter than other manufacturer that would have to start from scratch in terms of hardware.

How Fanuc Collaborative Robots are Different from Other Robots?

To my eye the biggest advantage of using a collaborative robot from Fanuc is if you are already used to the robot software and have a bunch of Fanuc robots on your workfloor. You will then simply transfer your programming and integration knowledge from the one robot you have to whatever new robot you add to your robot park. However, if you are a new robot user, programming a robot for the first time can be a real headache. But these new cobots provide the usual collaborative robot hand guided, easy and simple programming.

Both green Fanuc robots are super sensitive to impact, because of their sensitive force torque sensor, which is located in the base. In fact, since you will enter your payload for each robot motion, the robot will detect force variations and will stop when a certain force has been reached. Furthermore, you will be able to restart the robot with the simple push of a button.

The robots are also protected by an external skin that will cover pinch points and sharp edges which will also act to reduce the force of an impact. The robot comes with a Fanuc teach pendant and controller. I understand that a bunch of options, such as iVision, will be available to fit the new robots.

I want one, Where can I see it????

According to Manufacturing Global, the robot will be shown at the MACH Show in April. It looks like a bunch of prototypes are scheduled to be shown in different shows and I am expecting the official release by the end of the summer. We will keep you posted, stay tuned.

This is very good news for the robotic industry, I’m always thrilled to see new robots coming out, specifically for the collaborative robot market. And to see such a huge company come out with collaborative robots is even better. In fact, this means that cobots have a promising future and that even though it is still a small market in terms of global production, it will potentially boom soon!

How to Shop for a Collaborative Robot: The Definitive Guide