Congratulations to the Spanish Robotics and Automation Association

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By Jeff Burnstein, President Association for Advancing Automation (A3)


En la década de los 80, parecía que la robótica sería la próxima revolución industrial, transformando todas las industrias del planeta y reemplazando a los trabajadores humanos, pero el esperado despegue no se produjo entonces. Hoy en día, no hay empresa que no haya contemplado al menos la posibilidad de incorporar la robótica en su producción.

Aunque están por ver aún las consecuencias de la COVID-19, las perspectivas para el futuro no son ciertamente “pesimistas”. De hecho, es probable que sea todo lo contrario. La pandemia ha demostrado a las empresas, grandes y pequeñas, que la automatización y la robótica son esenciales para mantener sus negocios en funcionamiento.

I’d like to begin by congratulating the Spanish Robotics and Automation Association on its 35th anniversary. This is a tremendous milestone, as the association has managed to serve the robotics industry and remain vital despite the many ups and downs over the past three decades. I have been on this amazing journey with you every step of the way, having joined the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) in 1983, slightly before the Spanish association was created. Founded in 1974, RIA was the first of several associations now under the A3 umbrella. In 1984 we added the AIA – Advancing Vision Imaging, and in 2006 we added the Motion Control & Motors Association (MCMA). Today, our association is thriving, with some 1,250 member companies around the world involved in robotics, AI, machine vision, motion control and related automation technologies.

The Early Days

The first industrial robot was installed by General Motors in 1961 by Unimation, the company founded by Joe Engelberger, known throughout the world as the “father of robotics.” But the robotics industry didn’t take off in the US, so in the late 1960s Engelberger licensed robot technology to Japanese companies and Japan became the center of the global robotics industry, followed shortly after by Western Europe. By the early 1980s robots were finally getting major attention in the US and robotics was supposed to be the next industrial revolution, transforming every industry on the planet while replacing human workers. What ended up happening in the US is that robot sales fell off a cliff in the middle of the decade when General Motors cancelled major orders, the press reported that the industry was dead, and the people who lost their jobs were primarily those working for robotics companies! Our association, and possibly yours, was in great peril. So, our survival and yours is a testament to the important role that associations play in helping their members in both the best and worst of times.

Technology Changes

In the 1980s there were no collaborative robots, no autonomous mobile robots, and no “internet of things,” just to name a few differences. Safeguarding a robot usually meant putting it in a cage. The only industries using robots in significant quantities were automotive and electronics. Robot costs were far higher, accuracy and reliability were often lower. Robot controllers, grippers, vision systems, simulation tools, and artificial intelligence software were nowhere near as sophisticated or capable as what we have available today. Another key factor: because robots in industry were new, the workforce didn’t has a much experience as implementing, operating or maintaining robots. As a result, small and medium sized companies looked at robots as products for large, well-funded companies and often didn’t even consider using them. Today, it’s hard to imagine any company in the world not at least considering using robots, though the vast majority of them still haven’t, which means we are early in the evolution of the industry.

US Market Trends

Heading into 2020 the robotics industry in the US had been growing steadily for a decade, since the end of the Great Recession. While growth was slowing a bit (units were up just 1.6% in 2019), the outlook for 2020 and beyond seemed bright. Then, COVID-19 hit the world, and sent robotics orders plummeting. As I write this message, RIA statistics throughthe first half of 2020 show an 18% decline. While the industry is optimistic that the worst is behind us, we’ll have to wait and see how the remainder of the year ends up. COVID-19 may have a lot to say about that, not just in North America but also globally, where the International Federation of Robotics reports that growth in 2020 is unlikely.

But, the outlook going forward is certainly not “gloom and doom.” In fact, it’s likely to be just the opposite. The pandemic has shown companies large and small that automation and robotics is essential to keep their businesses up and running, especially when employees weren’t able to go to work as the virus was spreading. Recent studies from RIA and others indicate that 25-50% of US manufacturing companies will accelerate their adoption of robotics as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, new applications are emerging, such as disinfecting robots and more piece-picking robots in warehouses and other settings to reduce human touches on products. Some companies are using robots to create social distancing, another trend we expect to see more often in the months and years ahead in manufacturing, food processing, warehousing and other environments.

The Impact of Robots & Automation on Jobs

As the next wave of robotics and automation is expected to sweep the world in the post-pandemic era, new concerns about the impacts on jobs are being raised. For me this discussion harkens back to the early 1980s when study after study warned that robots would leave people jobless. However, during the 1980s and 90s most US companies failed to automate, in many cases choosing to send manufacturing jobs overseas in order to take advantage of low cost labor. This resulted in the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and know-how as well as the loss of intellectual property in many cases. Then, in 2008-09, the Great Recession hit, raising the unemployment rate and slamming the US and global economies. Robot sales also turned down during that period.

The end of the Great Recession heralded the beginning of an explosion of robot use in the US and throughout the world. During the period from 2010 to 2019, over 200,000 robots were installed in the US. As automation helped make companies more productive and profitable, the stage was set for a hiring boom, just the opposite of predictions that robots kill jobs. Unemployment fell from nearly 10% to about 3.5%. Indeed, what this period demonstrated in the US, and in many other countries, was that robots save and create jobs. As robot sales went up, unemployment fell, just the opposite of what would be expected if robots were job killers. The real threat to jobs is when companies go out of business because they are unable to compete, because that’s when all jobs are at risk. The negative impacts of plant closures include the weakening of businesses that supply factories with products and services, damage to the bars, restaurants and dry cleaners and other businesses that count on those factories in order to survive, and hollowed out cities with weaker schools and boarded up houses and businesses. My hometown of Detroit suffered this fate, and only recently has made a dramatic recovery from bankruptcy. I often wonder if that city could have avoided many of its problems if companies would have chosen to adopt robots and automation instead of choosing outsourcing.

One of the main drivers of automation in the US (pre-pandemic) was the lack of skilled workers in manufacturing. According to the National Association of Manufacturers and Deloitte, the US will have more than 2 million unfilled STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) jobs by 2025 due to a lack of qualified candidates. This is a real risk to the US economy that will still exist once the pandemic is over. Community colleges, technical schools, and others are racing to fill the skills gap, but it takes time, which impacts how quickly companies can adopt new technology. This worker shortage, combined with a too slow adoption of robots and automation, may delay the US economic recovery in the post-pandemic era.

My Outlook for the Next Decade

Joe Engelberger told me that I should never make a prediction that isn’t far enough in the future to ensure that I won’t be around to see if I was right or not! While I think that’s probably good advice, I’m going to take a shot here at predicting some elements of our automated future.

  1. Expect to see more robots in a wider variety of industries such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, food processing, medical device, life sciences and retail.
  2. Look for increased adoption by small and medium sized companies who still are at low levels of robot use at the moment.
  3. Expect the creation of better, safer and higher paying jobs enabled by robotics as the technology augments what people do best, while doing the jobs people don’t really want to do.
  4. Look for continued innovations that make robots more valuable in areas like machine vision, AI, gripping, mobility, safety sensors, remote operation, and ease of use.
  5. Expect improved public perceptions of robots in the US, who will view robots as helpers rather than “Terminators.”

We’re on the cusp of the most important period in the history of robotics as the technology accelerates throughout the world. I look forward to continued success in the next 35 years of the Spanish Robotics and Automation Association!

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