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Cusp of an explosion in robot use?

CC Willow Garage Robotenomics blog

It is not our task to predict the future, but to prepare ourselves for it.

~ Perikles

Industrial robots were first introduced to manufacturing facilities in the 1960’s with an installation of the UNIMATE robot at General Motors in New Jersey during 1961. With the success of the Unimate robots in the New Jersey factory, in 1969 General Motors installed 26 Unimate robots to assemble the Chevrolet Vega automobile bodies in Lordstown, Ohio.

At the same time (1969), Japanese auto makers were making advances in manufacturing: cutting costs, reducing variation, and improving efficiency. One of the major factors contributingto this transformation was the incorporation of robots in the manufacturing process. Japan imported its first industrial robot in 1967, a Versatran from AMF. In 1971 the Japanese Industrial Robot Association (JIRA) was formed, providing encouragement from the government to incorporate robotics. This move helped to move the Japanese to the forefront in total number of robots used in the world. In 1972 Kawasaki installed a robot assembly line, composed of Unimation robots at their plant in Nissan, Japan. After purchasing the Unimate design from Unimation, Kawasaki improved the robot to create an arc­welding robot in 1974, used to fabricate their motorcycle frames. Also in 1974, Hitachi developed touch and force­sensing capabilities in their Hi­T­Hand robot, which enabled the robot to guide pins into holes at a rate of one second per pin.[1]

Sales started to take off quite quickly in 1973 as more robotic manufacturers demonstrated the precision and reliability of automated machines.[2]

Many have complained the installation of robots within auto manufacturers is compelled by what is often described as the profit motive and job reduction; however, it is more reasonable to consider that robots have helped auto manufacturers improve productivity, increase quality and not only remain in business, whilst employing several million people worldwide, but also continue to increase the number of people employed.

Data means little without qualification

As we have seen, the auto industry was one of the 
first early adopters of industrial
 robots, and has remained the 
leading user. According
 to the International Federation of Robotics the
 average robot density per 10,000 
employees, within
 automotive manufacturers, is approaching 1,000
 (or nearly 1,000 robots for every 
10,000 people), against 
an average of 76 robots per
10,000 employees in other
 manufacturing sectors.

However, these figures may not show the whole picture. Take for example at the BMW owned MINI plant in Oxford United Kingdom, where there are approximately 4,000 people employed, using more than 1,000 robots, or 1 robot for every 4 people. Similarly the Nissan plant in Sunderland, in the north east of England, produces approximately 500,000 vehicles per year; employs 6,000 people and has 780 active robots. Indicating robotics are far more pervasive within factories than population of numbers per employee show.

At the end of 2012 the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimated there have been around 2.5 million industrial robots sold since the late 1960’s and that in the region of 1.235 million to 1.5 million of these industrial robots are still in service worldwide. The estimate of robots in service is based on the average service life of an industrial robot of 12 to 15 years.

Globally, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) indicates approximately 225,000 robot units were sold in 2014, 27% more than in 2013 and by “far the highest level ever recorded for one year.” In 2013 the total ‘recorded’ sales was 178,132 industrial robot units.[3]

On the other hand there are over 120 million people employed directly in manufacturing worldwide (12 million in the United States alone), indicating that robots in service worldwide are still approximately 1% to 1.5% of the global manufacturing ‘workforce.’

On the surface it would seem we are still a long way from ‘factories full of armies of highly intelligent robots.’ But don’t bet against it being long before the second wave of Baxter type robots completely changes this ‘dynamic.’

Cusp of an explosion in robotics?

Robotics is now spreading to a wide range of other sectors such as elder care, crop spraying and warehouse management. Some estimate that by 2025[4] robots will have entered every aspect of human life and will be commonplace; performing functions as diverse as nursing, complex surgery, policing and security, through to construction, retail and hotel service roles.

Some may claim that the current high level of research and investments in robotics, to do the work of humans, is investing money away from where the important problems are, however investments in robotics is leading to productivity growth and productivity growth ‘theoretically’ directly impacts GDP growth.

A National Academy of Sciences 1998 paper indicates (pages 3­5)

Historically, technological change and productivity growth have been associated with expanding rather than contracting total employment and rising earnings.

Technological change will make its maximum contribution to higher living standards, wages, and employment levels if appropriate public and private policies are adopted to support the adjustment to new technologies.

This begs the question – Could the jobs of the near future be in the robotics sector?

Remi El­Ouazzane, Vice President of Texas Instruments believes it is certainly an industry with significant growth potential, as he said:

We have a firm belief that the robotics market is on the cusp of exploding.

Likewise Professor Alan Winfield in his essay contained in the e-book released by Nesta, Our Work Here is Done,[5] believes robotics to be on the verge “of a kind of Cambrian Explosion.”

Using the same expression Gill Pratt, who recently stepped down as Program Manager of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to take up another high profile role in the Robotics private sector, asks in a paper titled: Is a Cambrian Explosion Coming for Robotics? Published in the highly respected journal from the American Economic Association, the Journal of Economic Perspectives.[6] Writes:

Robots are already making large strides in their abilities, <and> as the generalizable knowledge representation problem is addressed <lacking in current robotics>, the growth of robot capabilities will begin in earnest, and it will likely be explosive.

However Gill does caution:

The effects on economic output and human workers are certain to be profound.

[1] Source: Robotics and Automation Handbook 2005, edited by Thomas R. Kurfess

[2] See as an example – History of Industrial Robots, International Federation of Robotics 2012 (http://www.ifr.org/uploads/media/History_of_Industrial_Robots_online_brochure_by_IFR_2012.pdf)

[3] Industrial robots break worldwide sales records (http://www.worldrobotics.org/index.php?id=home&news_id=281)

[4] Nesta, Our Work Here is Done (http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/our-work-here-done-visions-robot-economy)

[5] Winfield, Alan. Nesta e-book, Our Work Here is Done http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/our-work-here-done-visions-robot-economy)

[6] Pratt, Gill A. Is a Cambrian Explosion coming for Robotics? (https://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.29.3.51)

Pic: Used under creative commons from Flickr.com Willow Garage


1 Comment

  1. […] It is not our task to predict the future, but to prepare ourselves for it. ~ Perikles Industrial robots were first introduced to manufacturing facilities in the 1960’s with an installation of the U…  […]

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