In what is being called “the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, robotics and automation are expected to take on a rapidly increasing portion of the traditionally manual labor roles across all sectors of the manufacturing industry. While this economic megatrend displaces lower-skilled labor, it will simultaneously create growing demand for highly-skilled workers, including scientists, engineers, and robotics and automation technicians. To address this looming skills gap and ensure US manufacturing competitiveness, the Robotics Industry Association (RIA) is spearheading USalliance.
This alliance connects leaders and experts in academics, industry, and government with the common goal of revitalizing US manufacturing prowess, with robotics at its core.
The U.S. Robotics Industry’s USalliance Financial Commitment
In a 2017, the USalliance received a financial commitment of $253 million while forming the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute. The U.S. Department of Defense committed $80 million to the effort, with the remaining $173 million being pledged from more than 225 industry stakeholders. ARM’s USalliance seeks to create a U.S. manufacturing renaissance by training a workforce adept at working with robots. Their stated four-part mission is to:
- 1Assert U.S. leadership in advanced robotics manufacturing
- 2Empower American workers to compete with low-wage workers abroad
- 3Lower the technical, operational, and economic barriers for companies to adopt robotic technologies (particularly for small and medium companies
- 4Aid in the creation and sustenance of valuable manufacturing jobs
ARM established its headquarters in Pittsburgh, Penn., a hotbed of U.S. Robotics commercial development and research, centered on Carnegie Mellon University’s renowned National Robotics Engineering Center. The USalliance’s Pittsburgh resources include workforce training facilities.
The USalliance’s membership reads like a who’s-who of the U.S. Robotics and manufacturing industries, including academia and research institutions; government and nonprofits; small, medium, and large manufacturers; and suppliers and integrators. The board alone features representatives from Northrop Grumman, Airbus Americas, and Lockheed Martin.
A Focus On Workforce
Education and workforce development is a major focus of the USalliance. Crucial to this effort is helping workers develop the adaptive and collaborative skills required in the robotics-centered manufacturing environment. As ARM puts it, they seek to catalyze workforce innovation by:
- 1Building a network of educational partners to grow participation in robotics-centered manufacturing certification programs
- 2Educating and supporting small- and medium-sized manufacturing entities (SMEs) in adopting robotics-centered manufacturing through
- 3Training and certifying students and educators in robotics-centered manufacturing
- 4Increasing workforce diversity via STEM and industry-recognized ARM certifications
To create a clearer picture of the efforts required to accomplish these goals, the USalliance mapped out areas of high priority, including U.S. education support for manufacturing as a career, negative perceptions of manufacturing careers, the readiness of the workforce for continuously gaining new skills, coordination between disparate efforts in advanced manufacturing, and regional skill gaps.
Coordination between industries, in particular, and especially across private and public sectors, can achieve more at a faster pace than any one organization can accomplish alone. Leveraging the global resources of multinational manufacturers, rapid innovation from research institutions and startups, and the support of state and local governments seeking to support high-tech industry and workforce development, are key to ARM’s success.
The integration of SMEs is also seen as crucial. Many SMEs view automation and robotics as inaccessible; something only for the “big guys”. However, many in the robotics industry view SMEs as more nimble due to their relatively smaller size. To capitalize on this, robotics researchers and manufacturers are seeking to make robots more adaptable to SMEs needs.
One area of SME focus is addressing is perceived cost barriers, which keep SMEs from exploring robotics as a manufacturing option. Whereas larger companies can assign a research team to explore robotics options, ARM believes it can serve as an outside resource that facilitates SMEs conducting comparable research. An understanding of robotics technologies available, as well as their adaptability, will make it easier for SMEs to make these decisions. A pipeline of workers already trained to work in collaboration with robotics technology will help bolster the trend.
A second area is the workforce fears that sometimes appears at companies considering robotics. Workers often see robotics as “replacing” them. With robotics, a task that currently requires several workers can be completed with just one. However, with robotics efficiencies, companies often expand, needing more, rather than fewer workers.
Workforce training not only helps alleviate these fears, it can help workers see additional opportunity (and advancement) when they embrace robotics. Additionally, workers are often delighted to find that robots can take over some of the most ergonomically demanding tasks, freeing workers up to take over more desirable, body-friendly roles.
ARM is supporting their SME training efforts by placing resources as close to SMEs as possible. At least eight regional hubs dubbed “Regional Robotics Innovation Collaboratives” will make expertise and resources more accessible, as SMEs seek to embrace robotics and educate their workforce.
What Industries Will The USalliance Address First?
The first industries ARM will tackle: automotive, aerospace, electronics, and textiles. The first three are expected to make up 75% of manufacturing robotics by 2025, much of this supported by the defense industry.
Textiles may seem a wildcard, but robotics industry experts see it as an industry ripe for modernized automation, as well as an industry robotic innovation that could help bring the industry back to the U.S. Historically, textiles were a major U.S. industry lost to cheaper labor abroad. It is also an industry roboticists find particularly challenging, as manipulating flexible fibers and fabrics stymies researchers.
However, renewed focus on tackling these hurdles is the type of thinking the USalliance is hoping to spur: not just to bring old jobs back Stateside, but to reinvigorate an industry with technological leaps that create higher-value jobs for technically inclined workers ready to collaborate with machines in robotics-oriented manufacturing facilities.
The Benefits Of Automation & Collaboration
Due to the challenges, it may seem odd to place such an emphasis on textiles. However, the man/machine collaborative nature of this type of endeavor hits a key element to ARM’s philosophy. Robotics alone is not the goal. Factories anywhere in the world will adopt any technology that makes them more efficient and/or productive. This means robotics alone cannot make U.S. manufacturers competitively more productive. In this scenario, workers will continue to be displaced.
However, the combination of robotics and a workforce skilled at working with and continually adapting both to robotics and within their own skill sets will provide a competitive edge. Workers freed of routine, mundane, and even injury-prone tasks taken over by robotics, if properly trained and with the resources to constantly adapt and be re-trained, will have a major competitive edge over manufacturing workforces just adopting robotics. A collaborative machine/workforce environment wins.
There is a stress here on the machine/workforce collaboration. Instead of robotics supplanting workers, they free the workers to help provide innovative thinking: how can the robots be further refined to handle more of these tasks, which furthers the workforce’s ability to provide value-added contributions, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking that makes both side of the equation more valuable. How can the machine/workforce collaboration result in a win-win situation?
Conclusion: What Does It Take to Achieve This Vision?
The USalliance’s machine/man vision is meant to be brought together incrementally. By bringing together the right innovation partners (including academia, researchers, and engineering), the right workforce training partners (including existing manufacturers of all sizes), and the right funding partners (including the DOD and the many stakeholders invested in this effort), the endeavor can be tackled from all angles.
Driven by the right focuses--to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing not by just “bringing jobs back”, but by creating the next generation of highly-adept, flexible, and ready-to-be-retrained workforce--the ARM partnership can create a whole new wave of manufacturing jobs. Not just ones that help employ workers, but that help those workers grab a competitive edge that ensures their own future, as well as the growth of the industries they work in.
The major steps toward this vision begin with bringing together the various partner industries through communication and education. They continue with establishing the educational resources—both in educational facilities and intellectual resources, such as training programs, instructors, and laboratory programs that connect the innovation side of the equation (the researchers and engineers) and the executors (the managers and workers on the factory floor) to test and share how the machine/man program can best progress.
The final step, demonstrated by the DOD’s investment, comes from those willing to invest in and benefit from the vision’s industry renewal by serving as the end customer.
The end result is a more efficient, productive, and highly-adaptable U.S. manufacturing industry, including the factories themselves and the workforce. This makes the nation more competitive as a whole which also creates more opportunity for everyone involved. It also creates an environment where all players are looking to tackle the next challenge though a collaborative mindset, ready to seek innovative solutions, embrace technology, and continue to renew our nation’s primary workforce resources.