Mercedes-Benz Isn’t Really Replacing Robots With Humans – It’s Pairing Humans With Better Robots

smart collaborative robotThe robots are dead! Long live the robots! If you saw the news out of Mercedes-Benz yesterday that they’ve “fired” the robots they’d been using in their factories and gone back to using skilled humans, maybe you had the same reaction.

But there’s more to it than that. Mercedes is replacing robots that represent technology introduced more than 40 years ago. As Dylan said so well, “the times, they are a-changing” and the days of deploy-it-once-keep it-forever automation are gone. It’s time to move to a new breed of smart, collaborative robots – robots that can work with humans, that can navigate the unpredictability and imperfection of the factory floor and that can perform more than a single task. And that’s exactly what the German automaker is doing.

GE Innovation in this new world is being led by manufacturers that heretofore were not able to take advantage of traditional automation. Companies like GE and Jabil are deploying collaborative robots as part of a broad strategy to be better positioned to meet demand for more responsive, resilient supply chains and support accelerated innovation cycles.

Mercedes’ announcement that they’re putting their sterling brand behind the movement is a milestone in the race to transform manufacturing. The leadership at Mercedes recognizes that the time to act is now, that the window for grabbing competitive advantage with these robots is short and they’re going for it. If you’re waiting to embrace this new model for automation innovation, take note. You don’t want to be left in the dust, do you?

Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

Lessons Learned In China: Don’t Fear The Robots

Made In China 2025

While the news of Made in China 2025 (MiC 2025) – China’s aggressive plan to remake its manufacturing sector launched in May 2015 – was eclipsed in the global media by the news of its economic struggles by the end of the year, I’m certain that it remains the driving force behind decisions and actions being taken by Chinese manufacturers today.

Last summer, when I wrote about the implications that MiC 2025 had for US manufacturers, the race to bring smart, collaborative robots to work in Chinese factories had really just begun. In the past six months, the pace of adoption has picked up significantly – well in keeping with IFR’s 2014 prediction that China would increase the number of industrial robots deployed in its factories nearly five-fold – from 100,000 to over 425,000 by 2017.

The adoption rate in China for these robots exceeds what we’re seeing in any other market. I can say definitively that in no other place where we do business is the sense of urgency so intense – fueled by rising costs, labor shortages, and high turnover rates. I’ve been thinking about the differences between China and other markets when it comes to what’s happening with robots and automation. Some takeaways based on our experience are here.

A bold leap of faith. Unlike manufacturers in the US and Europe who invest heavily in designing a strategy, testing and analyzing and then putting it to work, Chinese manufacturers are focused on getting experience with robots and using that experience to start deploying. As a result, the speed at which they are learning to apply this new breed of robots is much faster and so are the benefits they gain along the way.

On the job from day one. For MiC 2025 to succeed, the most complex part of automating the factory cannot be integrating robots into the environment. Getting robots deployed quickly – as measured in days, not months – makes Chinese manufacturers better positioned to maximize the window for profit-taking in the ever-decreasing product lifecycle, especially true for consumer electronics.

Imperfection is reality, deal with it. Traditional robots can’t cope with the variability inherent in most manufacturing, requiring extremely rigid, highly customized production lines. Any change requires reconfiguration that comes with expensive integration and significant lead-time. Moving beyond this “monument-centric” approach to deploying automation by building operations that can be easily and quickly modified as work evolves is essential in the imperfect environment that is the factory of the future. These are lessons Chinese manufacturers have taken those to heart – starting out of the gate with more flexible solutions that require less integration.

Transforming what Made in China means. MiC 2025 is a bold call to action to transform Chinese manufacturing from the world’s source of low-cost labor to the leader in innovation and quality. As demand for mass customization rises, the business model that produced one SKU, ten million times isn’t going to cut it. Smart, collaborative robots are essential to give customers what they want when they want it and for the exponential improvements in quality needed to redefine Chinese manufacturing.

Smart automation transforms the workplace. With employee turnover rates close to 20 percent, having robots that can be trained quickly on multiple tasks and that can perform those tasks robustly without intervention is an essential piece of the solution. More importantly, as robots get smarter and as innovation advances bring IIoT and cloud robotics – where robots can share knowledge, learn from another and provide value-added data analytics to detect and isolate quality issues more quickly – online, the value these operations deliver to both the manufacturer and customers will only grow.

I’ve said often that we’re at a crossroads in manufacturing – where the definition of what it means to work in a factory is changing. I’ve also said that there’s no roadmap for what lies ahead – we’ve got to chart a new course. From what we’ve seen and experienced in China, these manufacturers are stepping quickly into the future. It’s exciting to be at the table, and I promise to share more as we learn more. I welcome any observations you’ve got – tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

Think You Know Industrial Robots? Think Again.

UnimatePeter Drucker said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and in my experience, there’s no industry where that wisdom holds more true than manufacturing. I’m not a hardened cynic, just a pragmatist, having spent the majority of my career bringing technology that disrupts the status quo – from inventory optimization and managing risk in the supply base to collaborative robots. Manufacturers are among the most skeptical buyers and for good reason – what they do is hard, complex and things are done the way they are done because it’s been proven to work. There are times though when the opportunity to transform the business is so compelling that – as Drucker said – executives need to spend whatever time is necessary to tear down the cultural barriers that are getting in the way of the strategy that capitalizes on the moment.

In the category of robotics and industrial automation, now is one of those times. It’s been more than 50 years since Unimate went to work at a GM plant unloading heavy parts and welding them onto automobile frames. Manufacturing has changed a lot and today is on an evolutionary path toward the 4th industrial revolution. Unfortunately, while executives may be ready to move quickly toward the factories of the future for first mover advantage, many automation engineers remain entrenched in 20th century thinking about robots — when they were highly customized solutions, designed to perform one task over and over again, with a price tag to match.

New Robots, New Truths

Manufacturers who think they know industrial robots need to think again. The new category of smart, collaborative robots has changed everything once held true about robots for manufacturing.

  • Cost is no longer a barrier: With a robot that costs around $25,000, manufacturers can recoup the initial investment in less than one year and more importantly are able to deploy the robot for multiple tasks without expensive reprogramming.
  • You do not need a PhD in robotics to put one of these to work: the best person to train a smart, collaborative robot is the person who actually does the work. Because the robots “learn” by doing the task, guided by a human colleague, they can go to work immediately.
  • No more monuments: One fundamental challenge with traditional automation has been the static nature of the machines. The permanent nature of these installations required first, that the manufacturer design its process around the robot and second, that once the process changed, the robot becomes not much more than – as one of my customers calls them – monuments. Today, robots operate in support of the process – not the other way around.
  • The world isn’t perfect, and your environment doesn’t have to be for the robot to work: Variability is a reality – parts won’t always be placed exactly where or how they should. Rather than assume a perfect world, which can come at the expense of flexibility and agility, the new category of robots are able to deal with the changes and normal fluctuations that are inherent in most modern manufacturing environments.


Pick a Project, Prove it Works and Repeat

When Unimate was introduced, telephones were tethered, computers were kept in warehouse-like spaces and the news was printed on paper. All of that has changed and so have the robots.

Remember my earlier point about skepticism and reluctance to run full tilt toward change shared by many in the field? In all honesty, I think it’s a good thing hold fast to the ‘prove it’ mentality. And the good news about this new category of robots is that it is possible to demonstrate quickly how effective they can be. With smart, collaborative robots, you don’t need to change a single thing about how you run your production lines today. Find a task that people should NOT be doing. Get those folks to show the robot what needs to be done. Measure the increase in efficiency and productivity. And move on to the next task. It really is that simple.

Embracing now the new truths about these robots is essential to exploiting Industry 4.0 and the advances in manufacturing technology that will transform how products are delivered. I welcome hearing about your experiences in discovering just what these robots are able to do and what you’ve found along the way. Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

Software Rules the Road and the Robots

Tesla AutopilotWhen I am not working on robots or playing with my children, chances are good I am driving – or reading about driving – cars. So it is no surprise that I read with great interest the news from Tesla about Autopilot. On Oct. 14, Elon Musk and the team at Tesla brought semi-autonomous driving to owners of Model S and Model X – through a release of software. With just the push of a button, Tesla changed a car that you drove to one that now – under certain conditions – drives for you.

For a software guy like me, Tesla’s breakthrough illustrates just how far the power of software to change almost everything about how hardware works has come. For more than 130 years, cars have been about motors, transmissions, and suspension systems. Now, software rules. In the case of cars, it will forever change what it means to drive. I see it, too, in the world I live in – where the truly incredible innovations in robots are being driven by a new class of software.

Of course, we can’t have automation without the physical robot – after all, the arms still have to be there to complete the task. But the mass adoption of robots over the next 5 years is not going be driven by the hardware. It will be driven by software that goes well beyond the code that programs the robot to perform a specific task to define everything from how robots interact, perform and deliver value.

Changing What it Means to Be a Robot

Today, software is

  • making it easier to work with robots. From the ability to communicate through human-like gestures to take the spoken word – in context – and translate these words into a serial set of Cartesian actions, robots are now able interact with humans beyond the screen. Software brings to robots the artificial intelligence that reduces the cognitive load required by humans to work with robots – making collaboration with smart, collaborative robots truly possible.
  • enabling robots to work like humans do. Humans bring the nuance of touch to completing nearly any action – whether fastening a seatbelt or tightening a screw. With software, robots are now able to master the give-and-take that gives humans the ability to apply just the right amount of pressure to respond and react as needed
  • giving robots the flexibility to work in variable environments. For traditional robots, manufacturers need to create a tightly controlled, perfect environment where everything was just-so, so that the robot could always find the object or target it needed to complete a task. But like the world, manufacturing environments are not perfect. Driven by software, robots are no longer stymied by a misaligned part on a conveyor belt or a cardboard box with a lid that’s partially closed—they are able to adjust to the conditions, complete the task and move on.
  • creating robots that are both smart and Smart. Robots today are able to apply logic and make simple inferences. Going forward, look for digital and information technologies to come together with advanced manufacturing in ways that allow robots to cognitively understand, reason and learn. Not only will robots learn from the past, but they will be able to predict the future and prescribe actions they can take that drive positive outcomes.

All of these advances are already changing the way manufacturers deploy automation – bringing robots that improve efficiency and productivity to tasks that have been out of the reach of traditional industrial robots. Companies like GEJabil and Donnelly Manufacturing are using robots in complex, varied and low-volume, high-mix environments.

 An Expansive Opportunity

The amazing thing about software is that – unlike hardware – the possibilities are infinite and the costs are much lower. As we’ve seen with our phones and now cars, improvements come without additional cost. So too, will robots improve how they work and what they are able to do with software upgrades. You won’t have to buy a brand new robot every time you need it to do a new task, as you once did with traditional robots.

As the 4th Industrial Revolution takes hold and factories of the future run more and more on autonomous machines, robots will be an integral part of the fabric. These robots will be able, not only to perform tasks, but also to collect data on the performance of the task and analyze it for interpretation and action by human colleagues. The now nascent field of cloud robotics will allow the knowledge robots gain to be shared with other robots, creating a way for robots to train robots. With the advances made possible by software, robots will make themselves, their processes and the products they produce better.

Manufacturing is changing. Robots are changing. Every day, we see new possibilities for product transformation processes as customers push the boundaries to reach a new level of productivity and efficiency – and ultimately – innovation and growth. Where do you see potential for software-driven robots? Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

When Humans and Robots Work Together

Sawyer Portrait-Dark-Eyes-MasterWhen you hear about innovative technological advances that are reshaping industries, chances are you aren’t thinking about a factory floor. Not much has changed there since the first industrial robots were deployed in the 1960s — until now.

Collaborative robots, a new category of automation, are changing the way manufacturers optimize operations and drive innovation in new ways.  As they increasingly work together with humans these sophisticated robots will help redefine the nature of work — boosting productivity, improving workplace safety and creating a more intelligent working environment with the help of Big Data analytics.

 Foundational Shifts Create New Opportunity.

Increasingly, traditional low-wage markets are losing their competitive edge, as wages rise and consumers place higher emphasis on working conditions and the environmental impact of production.  At the same time, manufacturers face labor shortages as the workforce ages and younger generations shun low-skill manufacturing jobs. In fact, Deloitte recently forecast that in five years, there will be 2 million unfilled factory jobs.

Compounding the complexity is the way in which consumer expectations are changing. Today, buyers want personalized items, and not just when it comes to luxury purchases. From smart devices to the cases that protect them, consumers expect customization and personalization — requiring manufacturers to shift from high-volume, low-mix processes to low-volume, high-mix models.

To meet these challenges — and recognizing that a strong national economy is a vibrant manufacturing sector — countries around the world are jockeying for the lead position. China recently kicked off Made in China 2025, a national program to upgrade its manufacturing sector and spur innovation with an investment of about $1.3 billion. The German Industrie 4.0 initiative resulted in nearly $1.5 trillion invested in manufacturing innovation. The U.S. Congress has authorized a $1 billion investment to accelerate advanced manufacturing technologies.

Collaborative robots can play a key role in the new model for manufacturing, where man and machine work side-by-side. Boston Consulting Group has projected that annual sales of collaborative robots could top 700,000 by 2025, up from In 225,000 in 2014.

Here’s how robots are transforming industry:

  1. Robots do the tasks, humans do the thinking: Robots are designed for execution and repetition. No matter how sophisticated robots get, there will always be tasks that require cognition and complex thinking that are better suited to humans. Robots will fill the low-skill job void and allow humans to drive innovation.
  1. Labor will have a lower impact on price: Historically, labor costs and regulations have played a major role in price setting. However, collaborative robots deemphasize labor concerns, allowing businesses to be located near customers, natural resources or critical infrastructure that can lower costs and help boost business revenue.
  1. Man and machine will safely co-exist: Contrary to a Hollywood depiction of robots usurping people, collaborative robots can actually sense humans and stop moving when someone gets too close, eliminating prior safety concerns. Efficiency without danger allows companies to focus on big-picture initiatives like inventing new products, improving quality and perfecting design-to-delivery cycles.

When placed side-by-side in the workstream, robots and humans will finally be able to work together on problem-solving, process improvement and much more. That’s where the next Industrial Revolution will take place, and manufacturers need to need to move now or risk being left behind.

On Your Marks: The Race to Global Manufacturing Leadership Is On


How many times in life, when in the middle of a fundamental shift in the world around us, are we given choices about how to proceed? For US manufacturers, this is one of those moments, where they can choose to be leaders or laggards.

In the 1980’s, faced with rising competition from new market players, an economy in recovery, and increasing energy costs, U.S. manufacturers embraced global outsourcing of production to stay competitive. In the absence of national leadership that would level the playing field against low-cost sourcing countries, what followed was the mass exodus of middle-class jobs, fragmented supply chains and a drain on the knowledge base. Decades later, wages have stagnated in the US, while rising in other regions. And US manufacturers have lost the expertise in how to build products that kept them on top for more than a century.

Today, the US is recognizing that a vibrant manufacturing sector is essential to a strong economy. So too, do other countries. In May 2015, the Chinese government launched an ambitious vision to transform Chinese manufacturing from the world’s source of low-cost labor to the leader in innovation and quality. Made in China 2025 marks the start of a new race to lead in manufacturing and an opportunity for US manufacturers to grab the pole position.

The Race to Lead is On

There are certainly plenty of naysayers who pooh-pooh China’s ability to make Made in China 2025 a reality. Just wait and see they say, it will fail and they’ve got plenty of points to defend their position. Not so fast. There are also plenty of reasons why Made in China 2025 could succeed and why US manufacturers need to recognize this as the wake-up call it is. First, Made in China 2025 is tied to the 100th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, making this about proving a point. Second, when the Chinese government goes all in, it can turn things around. Consider high-speed trains: following a literal train wreck, the country set out to fix the issues and it did; today, China is the largest exporter of these trains. Finally, China won’t be starting from ground zero on this initiative – it’s learned at the feet of the best–US and Europe—what world-class manufacturing operations look like.

Earlier this year, the Boston Consulting Group released a study that found that the cost to manufacture in the US is only 5 percent higher than it is in China. The advantage is driven widely by innovation in energy extraction, and is expected to remain in place for 15 years. That’s a pretty long horizon in which U.S. manufacturers can make the kinds of choices that will allow them to live brighter futures. And it’s not just the future of their companies and their shareholders that we’re talking about. At stake is the future of the middle class in America. A manufacturing-based economy is what drives a decent standard of living for many, if not most Americans.

First Mover Advantage Requires that We Move, Now.

The future of manufacturing’s power to transform economies lies in continuous product innovation and the ability to respond quickly to shifts in everything from competitive pressure and consumer demand to global business conditions. The factory of the future will be built on the integration of information technology, advanced manufacturing technologies and a fundamental re-imagining of the future of work. Today, it’s not economical or practical to automate 90 percent of tasks of in manufacturing. Still, those tasks – highly repetitive, routine and requiring little cognitive engagement – have to be completed and humans are used to fill the gap. In the factories of the future, robots fulfill those tasks, and people will focus on work that engages creativity to accelerate innovation. Whoever figures out first how to execute the new vision of automation will have significant advantage over those who wait until someone else figures out how it works.

Now is the time to get started on the journey toward an integrated workforce. There’s no roadmap for the market we’re in today – we’ve got to chart our own course. In these conditions, risk is a given, but so too are rewards. Leaders will know how they will compete, understand the risks and move ahead wisely, and quickly. Accelerating the discovery takes a few smart rules:

  • First, throw out everything you think you know about automation. In traditional automation, the operation is built around the robots and the robots are built to solve a specific problem. No more. Multi-purpose robots work anywhere and on more than one task.
  • Second, find a task or two and use them as a vehicle to learn. Low hanging fruit are tasks that are dangerous for humans or highly repetitive tasks such as packing boxes or testing. At $25,000 for a smart, collaborative robot, you’ll get back your investment in less than a year, and more importantly, the robot will contribute value for many more years.
  • Third, define how you will measure success. What is the value you are looking to achieve with these early implementations? Is it time to volume, the ability to respond to market and product changes, higher levels of quality, reduce the scale required to achieve profitability? Identifying what you want to achieve, and the milestones along the way will ensure that everyone is working toward a share goal.

They say that history repeats itself. I’m confident that US manufacturers will seize the moment and accelerate the work that’s been started on building the factories of the future, right here, right now. Where are you finding the opportunities to capitalize on this new reality? Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

GE’s Roland Menassa: When Robots Help People Do Their Jobs Better, Manufacturing Wins

Roland Menassa General ElectricWhat companies come to mind when you think about continuous innovation? There are few more linked to the drive to innovate than GE [NYSE:GE] .

Staying ahead requires more than vision. Building out the technologies, processes, and strategies is critical to ensuring the success of any forward-looking effort. For GE, a lot of that work takes place at its Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center outside of Detroit, Michigan. Here, Roland Menassa, the Center’s leader shares his perspectives on manufacturing and smart, collaborative robots.

You’ve been in the robotics industry for decades – what’s next for manufacturing robots?

I’m a big robotics-believer. Prior to joining GE, I was with GM and focused on the role of automation and robots in driving greater efficiency and productivity, in research and plant manager roles. With the rapidly evolving “New Robotics,” we recognized that we needed robots that were safe enough to work beside humans, could be easily trained to do tasks by their “colleagues” on the line and able to perform more than a single task.

Today’s innovation will change the model of where, how and why robots are deployed in exponential ways. I predict that soon production employees will get a robot when they are hired, just as we give engineers computers when they join. Like the computer, given to help the engineers do their job better, the robot will become part of the employee’s team: there to help them do their job better.

So, your vision is one where robots and people work as collaborative teams?

Absolutely. People are smart, they exercise judgment and they take direction. Today, we’re requiring that workers and tasks conform to dedicated, inflexible machinery. In the factories of the future, robots will be assistive tools – enabling, supporting, and enhancing the capabilities of highly skilled workers at many concurrent tasks. People will be able to respond rapidly to product line changes based on consumer demands, environmental regulations and changing market conditions, while producing customized, high-quality products.

These teams will adapt to lower-volume assembly methods and product mixes instead of being tied to a specific product line or method, making it possible to grow their share of the manufacturing sector globally.

What are some of the innovations making it possible to create these robot-human collaborative teams?

Manufacturing is very hard. When you break it down, you realize how much we take for granted what humans do and how challenging it is to build a robot that can emulate every action.

That said, there are several breakthroughs moving us forward. The first is that the “DNA” of collaborative robots is different. In this new category of robots, the arms are managed through force-control, as opposed to position control. So, they are safe to work alongside humans. More importantly, it opens up a whole new range of activities that use force-based capabilities. For example, in applications such as testing – whether printed circuit boards or safety belts— the robot “knows” how much force to apply to complete a task while achieving quality and reducing the likelihood of damage to the part or the fixture.

Second, these robots can be trained by colleagues. It’s amazing to watch a line operator show the robot what needs to be done and then watch the robot do it. This “train by demonstration” may be one of the most compelling selling points. Traditional robots, of course, had to be programmed by consultants and it would take months for that to happen – a production employee never got anywhere near the process. In my experience, when the robot is the interface, that’s when people engage and are ready to work with the robot.

Finally, we’re seeing robots that can perform much more dexterous operations. I was part of a team that worked with NASA on building Robonaut, and that was a big part of what we were after: force-sensing manipulation. There’s a lot more to come in this space, and it will center on developing robots that perform tasks in the same way humans do.

How are you preparing GE for the deployment of smart, collaborative robots?

Our environments are low-volume, high mix and so flexibility is key. Since 2013, we’ve been looking at ways to advance our automation strategies in these environments with the latest innovations in robotics technology.

We see immense potential for collaborative robots in GE’s businesses. Today, we have Baxter robots from Rethink Robotics in use or being evaluated in GE Healthcare, GE Power and Water and GE Energy. We are looking forward to deploying our first Sawyer later this year.

I find two things critical to adoption success. First, we’ve got to change how we think about the manufacturing process. In the old days, factories were built around the robots and everything was configured to work around that installation. Today, robots must perform in human-centric operations – integrated into work cells, able to be moved to where the work is done, and making it possible for people to do their jobs better.

Second, production teams have to be involved in the rollout. When line operators help identify how the robot will be used, train the robots, and work with the robots from day one, skepticism, fear and intimidation evaporate. More importantly, we get the improvements in productivity, efficiency and innovation we’re looking for much more quickly, as people focus on the work they are best suited to do and robots do the rest.

What will the role of robots be in GE’s Brilliant Factories?

We’re leading in the development of software solutions that make our products more efficient, easier to manage and maintain, and part of integrated environments. The collection and analysis of many, many terabytes of data from the hardware is absolutely part of that vision. That means doing so in our factories, and robots will be key in that process.

In the not-too-distant future, robots will help us manage that data to drive continuous process improvement, raise quality standards and more. That’s when we’ll see the true fulfillment of the promise of automation.

Roland’s vision is most definitely one of the most exciting ones in the industry today. More and more I’m reading and hearing about how manufacturers are moving toward a new model for robots and people working in collaboration as Roland sees it. What about you? What do you think the new workforce will look like and what are some of the ways robots can help people in manufacturing do their jobs better? Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.

Why Robots AND Humans Are the Answer to Manufacturing’s Job Woes

Paul training BaxterIs it just me, or has the pace of stories about the rise of robots and threats to jobs increased substantially in the past few months? NPR, The New York Timesbookshelves, both real and virtual, are crowded with commentaries about the impending arrival of smart robots able to do everything that we humans do and basically replacing us in the workplace.

Ok, so maybe, since I work for a robotics company, I take these stories a bit on the chin. I certainly am making a loud and clear disclaimer that I can’t speak to what smart, collaborative robots will be able to do in every single segment of human life.

What I can do is speak to the very real challenge that manufacturers face. Sure, everyone from the unions to the White House administration is looking to manufacturing to be the tide that lifts the US out of dismal unemployment numbers. For good reason. Many know about manufacturing’s multiplier effect: every $1 spent in final sales of manufactured products supports $1.33 in output from other sectors—or through a different lens—for every one job in manufacturing anywhere from 1.5 to three manufacturing-related jobs are created. Regardless of how the reach is measured, those are compelling statistics for putting people to work in manufacturing.

But here’s an inconvenient truth about jobs in manufacturing as it is today. A while back Forbes reported that there are 200,000 jobs left unfilled in manufacturing today. More recently, Deloitte reported that by 2025 there would be an estimated 2 million unfilled jobs in the sector. Behind the numbers is one reality: the manufacturing workforce in place today is aging out and one perception: the next generation of workers doesn’t want those jobs.

Manufacturers like Jabil recognize that the low-cost labor model that stretched supply chains around the world needs to be revisited. Manufacturing needs to be closer to the centers of design and innovation and closer to end markets. So factories of the future will be smaller, nearer to customers and operated by local talent. These operations will also rely more heavily on technology and as was recently noted in coverage by the BBC of a new center of manufacturing in Chicago, will need skilled workers, with certifications and a very different kind of education than what’s currently available in most high schools in the country.

So, here we are: more skilled jobs, with the inherent better wages, are coming on-line. But working in production has a negative profile for many.

It’s time to rethink the definition of work. One electronics manufacturer I know has a team that spends an eight-hour shift hunched over microscopes doing visual inspection of parts that are the size of a quarter, and paper thin. Would you want to do that kind of work? Would you want your children or grandchildren to do that kind of work?

Let’s face it. Tedious, repetitive work that’s mind-numbing for humans, like machine tending still has to get done. So do hundreds of other tasks in production that simply aren’t suited for humans to excel.

So let’s rethink the definition of work. It’s happening now as savvy companies recognize that unlocking the potential for sustainable innovation lies in an integrated workforce where humans and robots work side-by-side. In this model, robots do the highly repetitive, low-skilled work and humans then are able to take on the roles that make a difference to customers and to the bottom line. Jobs that require cognitive skills and creativity. Jobs that contribute to product innovation and competitive value. Jobs that keep manufacturers – and the ecosystem they support – growing, thriving and contributing to the economy.

Nicholas Carr was spot on in his NY Times piece positing that robots will always need humans. It’s time to focus on how humans can work with robots and stop worrying about jobs lost that no one wants.

Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.


Factories of the Future: A Conversation With Jabil’s John Dulchinos

John Dulchinos Jabil CircuitRecently, electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit launched its Blue Sky Center, a state-of-the-art facility designed to help customers engineer growth in a world of change. Automation is a key component of the center – with programs to help customers with design-for-automation, as well as, share expertise in deploying flexible automation.

I was fortunate to be at the grand opening and heard some of the most visionary manufacturers in the world talk about how they are embracing the changes they see coming. Household names like CiscoTesla, and Honeywell, as well start-ups like Athos, and Tile, are working with Jabil to accelerate their strategies to optimize the factories of the future.

An aggressive strategy to deploy smart, collaborative robots is, according to John Dulchinos, Jabil’s vice president of digital manufacturing, “a key foundational element” for the company as part of its initiatives to advance operational excellence. I took advantage of the time to talk a bit more with John about his vision and what’s driving it.

Q: You’ve got a pretty clear vision for the factory of the future – can you sum it up for me?

A: At Jabil, we’re on a path toward factories that are more responsive, more flexible and more able to help our customers meet their customers’ needs. It’s likely to mean smaller operations, operations that can ramp up and scale back in much shorter timeframes and operations that are closer to the end market. And critical to all this – you’ll find at the heart – the ability to collect, analyze and use information – both from within the operation and outside.

Q: What do you see as the forces or catalysts behind this change in manufacturing?

A: There are a couple of significant trends occurring in manufacturing – especially electronics manufacturing and consumer goods.

First, there’s a move toward mass customization – consumers want products that are customized for them, and they don’t want to wait for very long to get it.

Second, product lifecycles are shrinking – we’ve got customers that ramp a product just for the holidays. While an extreme example, it illustrates why we’ve got to be able to build operations that can be reconfigured and ramped in extremely short time frames.

And finally, the model that’s served the industry so well for decades – locating in low-cost labor regions has reached its end. We’re seeing a greater demand for higher-skilled labor, driven by the reliance on digital and advanced technology, requiring that we rethink how we deploy automation in our operations.

Q: That’s a great segue – let’s talk about automation in the factory of the future. What does your vision for Jabil’s automation strategy include?

A: First, I have to confess – I’m a long-time robotics fan. I graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in the early 1980’s – when robots were all the rage. I’m very excited that we’re finally seeing the ideas we dreamed up then becoming reality.

At last, we’ve moved beyond the traditional manufacturing robot, and are seeing real-world applications today of smart, collaborative robots that deliver three very key capabilities to advance manufacturing.

First, these robots are able to not only work beside humans, but work with them. That means that they need to be trainable on the line, by the people who do the work. It also means they can work like humans do –that means intuitively, undaunted by variability and able to change from task to task with little downtime.

Second, these robots are easy-to-deploy and fast to ramp. In the new world of continuous reconfiguration of lines, and processes, we have to able to change what the robots do as quickly as we change the production lines.

Third, and critical in the flexible environments that are the hallmark of the factory of the future, these robots must be able to perform increasingly sophisticated tasks. This means that robots will have greater ranges of motion, be able to work with fixtures small enough for human fingers and require more than one step for completion.

Q: So where do you see smart, collaborative robots taking Jabil in the future?

A: I’m excited about what we’re seeing today—we’ve come a very long way in the applications. What’s next though is what I really am passionate about. Think about it – every robot we deploy is a computer. That means, going back to what I said earlier about the role of data in production environments, is that these robots will become critical in that model. Robots will be information management systems that can collect and analyze data on the floor, in real-time and make it available for interpretation.

That represents a real break-through in manufacturing allowing us to not only see what is happening now, but able to apply predictive technologies to the information. Everything from when a machine needs to be serviced to when a process needs to be adjusted will become available to us.

With that ability, we’ll no longer be simply looking at the past, but able to see ahead – a significantly more powerful tool for increasing efficiency and productivity. More compelling though, may in fact be the contribution that it makes toward accelerating innovation and creativity.
There you have it. Perspective on the evolution of manufacturing and the role that robots are playing in it today, and where robots may play tomorrow, from someone living it every day. What do you think the factory of the future will entail, and what role do you see for collaborative robots? Share your thoughts with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.


What Legos Taught Me About How Robots Should Work

jim_lawtonI grew up in Newport, RI, a city rich with breathtakingly beautiful vistas. Most Saturdays, I’d be walking the ocean cliffs at Brenton Point or hiking out to Hanging Rock at the Norman Bird Sanctuary overlooking Second Beach.

Fresh air and nature were great, but what I really loved to do was build things. Out of my head and into my hands, I would put things together with Legos or an Erector set and make them work. When I got bored, I would take something I’d already built apart and put it together in a different way.

I share this because I see that traditional automation solutions come together a lot like the skyscrapers I would make from those bricks. You start with a big bucket of parts – arms, cameras, conveyors, PLC’s, lots of wire. After many hours of assembling components and programming customized code, a unique solution is deployed on the manufacturing line or in the distribution warehouse. It’s a model that’s worked for decades.

Assembling one-off solutions is great for an 8-year-old growing up or for a manufacturing line dedicated to building one SKU ten million times. But many sectors of manufacturing today are experiencing a shift toward mass customization. From cell phones to cars, manufacturers are moving toward delivering customer-defined products. For example, BMW Individual was a previously little-known program that has gone mainstream, delivering individualized cars to consumers globally.

Cost effectively achieving lot sizes of one is hard—and won’t be accomplished without looking at the problem of automating the factory of the future in a different way. And even if you aren’t seeking that nirvana, today’s manufacturing reality is that market shifts are measured in months rather than years and the appetite for continuous innovation is voracious. This requires greater and greater levels of flexibility and ability to deal with this constant change cost effectively. It requires responsiveness and interchangeability.

For humans, this comes naturally. We change tasks without very much thought at all. From creating a presentation to loading the dishwasher, we shift gears constantly. This seamless transition between tasks has been beyond the reach of robots. To meet the needs of the new age of manufacturing, we have to change how robots are designed to work. Robots will behave as multipurpose workforce enablers and less like the highly customized, single-task installations they are today. This will allow the robot to be put on the job that is required. If today, you need it on line #1 performing task A and tomorrow you need it on line #2 doing task B, getting the robot to make that switch has to be easy and something that can be done by personnel currently in the plant.

To make multipurpose robots a reality, I think Buckminster Fuller said it best, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

That model is a robot driven more by software than hardware. Hardware in robotics is, of course, a given. But software is where the opportunity for a game-changing model lives.

Driven by software, multipurpose robots bring an entirely new ability to automate physical tasks. These robots are able to perform a wide range of tasks, change between those tasks with just the click of a button, continuously add new skills, and store the skills needed to perform tasks previously performed when needed.

Just a few of the features that multipurpose robots bring to the 90 percent of tasks in manufacturing not yet automated include the ability to:

Much more able to operate like humans, multipurpose robots are going to change how manufacturers are able to achieve the dual objectives of efficiency and innovation. I see it like this: today, when I buy Legos for my kids, they are pre-packaged to build a specific design—just like traditional automation solutions. It’s a great way to sell more Legos, but a creativity-killer from where I sit. I’m not saying robots that are flexible and able to do more than a single task are going to make manufacturers more creative – but I do believe that when automation can be deployed to solve the repetitive, less cognitive tasks and do more of them, then humans will be free to do what they do best – solve problems and innovate.

What do you think? Share your perspectives with me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.