New opportunities in engineering, technology offered by expanding field of industrial robotics

08/21/2012  |  BY JEFF BURNSTEIN
STEM
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The science and technology of robotics are steadily rising in importance, and not just in manufacturing. Educators and administrators in four-year, degree-granting engineering institutions are developing new programs and some existing programs are being expanded. This enhanced interest in robotics is also evident in many engineering-technology programs and even in middle and secondary schools, as shown by the huge successes of the FIRST Robotics and VEX Robotics competitions, and Project Lead The Way.

This resurgence in robotics has several wellsprings, among them a belated recognition that mechanization and automation are at least as dominant in manufacturing as computerization is in engineering. Computerization and information technology are, of course, direct drivers of the continual productivity gains throughout manufacturing while the use of automation increases.

The view that robots “take away” jobs is yielding to a realization that robots create jobs. The data can also be seen as indicators that robots preserve jobs.

To set the stage, a few numbers: In 2011, just over 19,337 robots valued at $1.17 billion were sold to companies in North America. RIA estimates that some 213,000 robots are now at use in United States factories, placing the U.S. second only to Japan in robot use.

That 213,000 figure means countless opportunities in robotics and mechanical automation paying $30,000 a year to over $100,000 with overtime. Moreover, robotics is applicable to virtually anything from medicine to government facilities, to scientific establishments (Oak Ridge, Tenn., Savannah River, S.C.) and to the military (combat, logistics, depot overhauls as at Anniston, Ala). Robotics students are not locked into factory jobs.

The flipside of this issue is that tens of thousands of good-paying positions in robotics cannot be filled due to shortfalls in training for technical skills. Observers believe that 90 percent of the U.S. companies that could benefit from robots have not installed any so far. The skills shortfall is a big reason.

Stringent formulas for cost-justification also play a role in the decisions of the 90 percent to hang back. With their own margins depressed, “many companies insist on six- to 24-month paybacks,” noted Stephen J. Rock, senior research scientist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems, Troy, N.Y, and a member of the RIA Board of Directors.

Help for Educators and Administrators

RIA offers help for educators in three ways:

  • Hands-on training and tutorials at RIA events.
  • Networking with nearby RIA members including users, systems integrators and developers.
  • Online with the RIA’s RhoBotaPhi.com, which we think of as “College Prep for Robotics Careers,” offers information about entry-level job descriptions and requirements, college robotic programs, internship offers, RIA student opportunities, and industry events.

Help is also available for resources for smaller institutions, especially those that astutely “work the system.” An outstanding example is Lake Superior State University (LSSU) in Sault Sainte Marie, Mich.

“The recognition and marketing offered through RIA and its website is a distinct advantage for smaller institutions like LSSU,” said Jim Devaprasad, professor of engineering, technology and economic development. “The networking opportunities at RIA events helps keep us abreast of the happenings and trends in industry,” he added.

“RIA’s industry members support us by hiring our graduates, donating equipment or providing it at discounted rates, and offering professional development opportunities,” Devaprasad said. “Although RIA is a trade association rather than a technical society, it provides opportunities for professional development for our faculty, staff and students”. LSSU has been a member of RIA for over 20 years. Prof. Devaprasad is a member of the RIA membership committee.

Partnerships, Devaprasad noted, are crucial. In addition to RIA, LSSU partnerships include Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), American Society for Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). “We also have several local and statewide industry partners,” he noted.

Networking and connections made through RIA memberships “have been invaluable for obtaining state-of-the-art robotics hardware, both for purchase and for use of specific projects,” Dr. Rock added. “These have exposed our students to some of the newest industrial robots and programming environments and networking with robot suppliers such as Adept, Kuka, Motoman and Stäubli.

Further help may soon be available under the new National Robotics Initiative at NSF. Announced in June 2011, NSF will be offering $70 million for next-generation robots and installing them to work beside, and cooperate with, people. NSF is seeking proposals from academia, industry, non-profits and others.

Robotics Vendors’ Views

“ATI Industrial Automation sponsors three universities with RIA memberships,” said Catherine Morris, senior account manager for the Apex, N.C., manufacturer of robotic peripherals and end-of-arm tooling such as tool changers and force and torque sensors. “We keep them informed about robotics conferences and help them network to find additional resources.”

Having a robotics program “gives an institution an advantage in developing ‘marketable’ graduates,” added Ms. Morris, current RIA Chairperson. “From ATI’s experience in hiring, robotics students tend to be more creative and have the skill sets we need. These students are well prepared for problem solving, teamwork and leadership,” she added. “They are more comfortable with technology and have stronger math and programming skills.”

“The best way to launch a robotics program is to reach out through the RIA to the robotics manufacturers for their support and advice,” said Joe Gemma, chief executive officer of Stäubli Robotics in Duncan, S.C. This is also the best way for educators to round up training materials and applications that illustrate opportunities in robotics, he noted.

“I personally sit on the advisory board for a nearby university’s program in ‘mechatronics,’ which deals with mechanical-electrical / electronics devices with embedded software,” Gemma added. “Much can be learned / taught with computer simulations, although hands-on experience is always preferable. The more exposure students get to the ‘real world,’ the better for everyone. We very much need employees with ‘multi-disciplinary’ capabilities.”

At Stäubli, he continued, “We believe education is part of our social responsibility. We have ‘mentoring’ programs with our engineers at several area robotics-education programs and we provide training materials, project work, and donations.” Gemma chairs the RIA’s Membership Committee.

“Automation is essential for competitiveness, to expand and to hire more workers,” says John Dulchinos, president and CEO of Adept Technology, Pleasanton, Calif. Adept is the largest U.S. industrial robotics manufacturer and Dulchinos chairs the RIA’s Statistical Collection Committee.

He pointed out, “China in 2010 became the fourth largest market for industrial robots and will likely pass the U.S. in the number of robots it installs yearly. China has the lowest labor costs in the industrialized world, yet it is putting in robots as fast as we are, or even faster. The human body,” Dulchinos added, “was not designed to be a factory machine. It was designed to be a thinking machine.”

Engineering institutions devote great resources to computer systems for design, engineering analysis, simulation, networking and programming, and rightly so. It is ironic, however, that far less attention has been paid to robotics (and mechanical automation in general) that all those computer systems support.

Jeff Burnstein is President of the Robotic Industries Association. For more information, visit www.robotics.org.
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