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Will You Have a Job in Tomorrow's Robot Factory?

Production and safety are up, but so is the technician's workload

August 2014

It's a kind of industrial dream: a factory where robots whirr and pivot, weld and paint, and move products—no worries about vacation, no overtime, no lunch breaks.

But is this a dream—or a nightmare?

Will industrial robots help cut manufacturing costs so much that companies "reshore" production, boosting employment in factories, supply chains, and delivery networks? That's what robot advocates say.

Or will they, as others worry, just make human workers obsolete?

These are key questions for nations and global manufacturers, and especially for those working in industry. How many plants use robots now, and how are robots affecting the technicians who keep plants running? Are those techs trained and ready for a robot revolution? Will that shelf of handheld test tools still pay off?

For answers, we surveyed the experts working at the heart of today's industry: Fluke tool users. Many have seen their operations change and modernize, and they were happy to share their perspectives. We heard input from some 84 users, one of our largest survey responses.

Robots grow more capable...and more "human"

Industrial robots are old factory hands. The heaviest industries, like auto makers, have long used robots to assemble, weld, and paint products. First on the assembly line was UNIMATE, a robot GM installed in 1961 to stack hot pieces of die-cast metal. Many of our survey respondents are intimately familiar with robots. But the world rolls on.

Today's robots have evolved. According to the Wall Street Journal, "an evolving breed of smarter, safer robots is making its way to the factory floor, armed with skills and capabilities that far surpass those of earlier generations." Makers have tested a Lettuce Bot, sensitive enough to thin a field of lettuce...and do it as fast as 20 hand pickers. A new industrial robot called Baxter has advanced sonar and sensors so it can detect and react to human coworkers. Baxter even displays expressions on a digital screen—almost a face.

One key question is what this growing robot workforce might mean for today's technicians...and how they plan to respond. Are robots really making a difference? Will technicians have jobs? How should they prepare for a new age of machines?

Ideas from the inside

These questions clearly interested survey respondents, who work around the world. Some 69 work in the USA, seven in Canada, three in Singapore and one each in Chile, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

They hold a variety of jobs, many focused in industry: some 29 (35 percent) serve as maintenance technician, seven as maintenance managers, and seven others as in-house electricians. We heard from nine electrical contractors, six HVAC/R techs, four workers in R&D, and three process technicians, as well as a commercial building inspector, a thermography consultant, a facility manager, and a general contractor.

Another 15 respondents, including a power quality consultant, a computer hardware tech, a biomedical equipment engineer, a forklift mechanic, a measurement systems supervisor, and several control systems design engineers, categorized their work as "other."

In what facilities do they work? Some 41 survey participants (49 percent) hold jobs in an industrial facility. Nine work as contractors, nine for utilities, four in government operations, three in commercial facilities, and one each in a hospital and a data center. "Other" was the choice of 13.

Key questions...and your answers

Following are the questions we asked about the robot factory, with summaries of results and selected comments from survey respondents. We also asked about the growing use of industrial control networks, and we will report on those results in a separate story.

  1. In your facility, are robots doing work that was formerly done by people?

"Yes," said nearly one in three respondents (32 percent). Others said no...or not yet. Some operations and some kinds of jobs—like the work done by a thermographic consultant or HVAC/R technician—are not prime opportunities for robotics. In other cases robots may be on the horizon, but they haven't yet arrived on the factory loading dock.

  1. How has this affected the workplace and your job?

For those working with robots, the impact is definitely mixed, according to respondents. Production and safety are up, but so is the technician's workload.

"The production level and output has increased," said Roy, maintenance manager at a Canadian industrial facility. "The biggest thing about automation is keeping up to the pace of new developments."

For Robert, maintenance technician in a US commercial business, the impact is varied. "In the past years, one machine replaced 60 people, but created 90 jobs since the unexpected speed allowed for more production time and cooking," he said. "I see the unskilled workers having a harder time keeping a job as basic functions can be done by machines faster, which don't have sick days and can go months without breaking down. It puts maintenance in a position of more responsibility to maintain and operate without an increase in pay."

"It has made things safer for the workers—they do not have to do dangerous work," said Jeff, an industrial maintenance technician. "My job has gotten harder trying to keep the robots working in such dirty and rough conditions."

"Most of our robots are for processes that were designed with robots," said Derek, an electrical controls engineer for a manufacturing facility. "They haven't really taken any jobs, they assist our operators. This has caused us to become more 'robot friendly.' "

  1. Do you expect to see robots in your workplace in the future? If so, how soon?

Those not yet living with robots expect them on the job from three years to five years to 10 or 15 years in the future...or never. It mostly depends on the job.

"I work in a shipyard and don't expect to see any robots," said Calvin, an in-house electrician. "The only viable robot use might be welding pipe connections to be assembled later."

"For infrared inspection, automation is not a likely candidate in the near future (5-10 years)," said Mike, a thermography consultant from Canada. "Past that, who knows?"

Joseph, a US electrical contractor, sees "no robotic electrical testing coming soon."

"No," said Dave, an industrial process technician who sees opportunity, not risk. "We will more than likely service the robots that take over the manufacturing sector."

  1. In your workplace, who tests and maintains industrial robots? Does this work require special skills or training?

The good part: In most plants it's the maintenance technicians and electricians who care for robots. The bad: It's added responsibility and requires more and specialized training...and may not come with more compensation.

"It is the skilled technician and tradesman who maintains Industrial robots," said Roy, maintenance manager in Canada. "Yes, this requires special skills and training. Each manufacturer requires its own training. Our cutting and blasting equipment is also automated and requires different training and special skills to operate and maintain."

Robert, a commercial maintenance technician in the US, agreed. "Maintenance and electrical maintenance workers are responsible for all robots, machines, freezers, and packaging. Most training has been very basic, but all of the workers come from different career fields (mostly military) with high amounts of education and training."

James, a US contract maintenance technician, had a different experience. "Manufacturers' technicians maintain robots currently on-site," he said. "Yes, technicians are specialty trained for specific robot component, or assembly."

The maintenance demands can cause tension. "Knowledge of process and procedures is very limited to the engineer and operator/programmer/tech," said Alan, another maintenance tech. "When these two people aren't around, we in maintenance must wing it...and this is not a very comfortable position to be in. We've been set up to fail, and we know it. Operator/techs seem to be the direction companies like ours are going. Seems like they'd rather train and pay a few, in order to save money.

"At risk is the maintenance departments' credibility because of lack of ability. Training programs are available locally but they're expensive, and difficult to attend because of employee schedules. Company has a program of reimbursement for continuing education, but few (if any) utilize it because of the way we're scheduled."

  1. Are you trained and qualified to diagnose and maintain robotic machines, control networks, and/or "machine to machine" (M2M) communications?

Nearly two thirds of survey participants (52 of 85) said no. Some mentioned that they are trained on control networks (which may be used in plants without robots), while others said they are learning through on-job training.

  1. What is the best way test and measurement professionals can prepare for these changes?

Our professionals had lots of guidance. Get ready for school—and take charge!

"Keep up upgrading, because most technology evolves, rarely does it explode," advised Mike, our thermography consultant in Canada. "If the company won't evolve, you should. Don't be left in a buggy whip job!"

Roy, maintenance manager in Canada, had similar advice. "The best way test and measurement professionals can prepare is be proactive," he said. "Know your machine and automation parameters. You need to ask what is it that affects those parameters and learn to control those measurables. Not just a PFMEA (Process Failure Mode and Effects Analysis) but an Equipment PFMEA."

"Assess the equipment and talent level you have against the future capital projects for automation," said Sam in Uzbekistan. "This can give you a rough draft of what you have in contrast with how you will need to grow."

Jeff, an in-house electrician, had a warning. "Do not let the changes get too far ahead of you. If you do you will be behind and have a hard time trying to catch up."

"It is critical to stay in the mindset of continued learning," said Allen, an industrial maintenance technician in the US. "Technicians should maintain contact with engineers involved in leading technologies. Attending trade shows and watching for new tools being promoted by forward-thinking companies like Fluke can make all the difference."

  1. Are handheld test tools still needed in a facility equipped with remote machine monitoring and robots on the production line? How are they used?

Respondents agreed on this: even in the robot factory, the people who fix things will rely on a well-equipped shelf full of test tools to get the job done.

"It still takes actual manpower at the machine to test circuits," said Joseph, an electrical contractor.

Stephen, an maintenance technician in the US, had a similar response. "There is no supercomputer on the planet that can match wits against the human brain," he said. "A good tech's intuition cannot simply be replaced with a motherboard."

"Absolutely," said Troy, a computer repair tech. Handheld tools are essential "to check out-of-spec robot measurements, for verifying robot measurements for quality control, and for diagnostics on the controls and robots themselves."

Commercial R&D technician Jack expanded on the idea. "Machines with so-called health monitoring continue to quit operating without warning," he said. "Someone using handheld test tools will be the one to troubleshoot to at least the subpart level, if not all the way to the root cause. Also, chances are that most systems will continue to lack the type of documentation that shows how those systems are intended to function. Therefore, handheld test tools will be needed for reverse engineering. And before any troubleshooting begins, someone needs to check for the presence or absence of hazardous voltages."

"Handheld tools are a must-have," said Robert, a commercial maintenance tech, "even with remotes and monitoring equipment. Hand tools are needed just to get to the areas that are having problems and the needed adjustments to bring back into working operation."

Alan, an industrial maintenance technician, summed it up: "Setups, diagnostics, maintenance procedures will require their use," he said. "Until they make a robot to maintain a robot, I'll have a need for handhelds—and a job."

News about robots

Micro Factories Employ Tiny Robots »
Robots Rising: 7 Real-Life Roles »
Robots, Reshoring and the Promise of the 21st Century »
Go to related article "It's Your Workplace…But Who's in Control?" »