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First Person: Robots Fueling the Next Wave of Transformation in Manufacturing

One of Area Development’s staff editors recently interviewed Jim Lawton, Rethink Robotics Chief Product & Marketing Officer, about the impact of robots on the labor force and on manufacturers, in particular.

Q3 2016
AD: You made a choice between engineering and becoming a concert pianist. Why did you choose the former?

Lawton: Growing up, I loved building things, especially working with Legos. For me, that form of creativity influenced my choice to go to Tufts University to study electrical engineering and then on to MIT, where I saw a couple of advantages that cemented my choice. First, I had the opportunity to join the inaugural class of the Leaders for Manufacturing program. I worked on some of the biggest challenges facing manufacturers in settings where executives from some of the world’s largest manufacturers would participate. Second, I thought that the variety of opportunities for work available to me after graduation would be much broader and present a greater range of challenge. And third, the life of a concert pianist is a solo life — most of my days would be spent practicing alone. I knew that, for me, a team-based environment would be more interesting and fulfilling.

AD: What affects have robotics had on manufacturing and the factory floor in the last 10 years?

Lawton: It’s only been in the last five years that smart, collaborative robots have come online and are today fueling the next wave of transformation in manufacturing. These general-purpose robots can perform more than a single task. They are designed to work alongside people and can be trained by those who are working on the production line. Driven by sophisticated software, today’s robots for manufacturing also are capable of performing more intricate tasks. The ability to work in many ways as humans do makes it possible to automate some of the more than 90 percent of tasks that, until now, have been beyond the reach of automation. These robots have made it possible for manufacturers to focus their people on more strategic work such as process and quality improvement.

AD: What are some of the more common industries where robots are being deployed?

Lawton: Historically, robots were best suited for working in large-scale production operations, especially the automotive industry. What we find to be very exciting now is that smart, collaborative robots with a price tag under $30,000 can be a solution for many other industries — everything from white goods and medical devices to plastics and consumer-packaged goods.
From his early days at HP, Jim Lawton has built his career on finding better ways for manufacturers to succeed. During his years in the manufacturing community, Lawton saw enormous untapped potential for robotics in manufacturing, which led him to the role of chief product and marketing officer with Rethink Robotics. Hiss manufacturing and supply chain expertise is vital to helping Rethink simplify and redefine automation.

AD: Please explain what types of tasks robots typically perform in manufacturing.

Lawton: Most of our customers are using robots for repetitive tasks that require a steady cadence of work. The robots work beside human colleagues on a wide variety of tasks such as loading and unloading goods, packaging products for shipping and sale, test and inspection, and metal fabrication.

AD: What kind of skilled labor will be needed to work with these technologies in the future?

Lawton: Robots are part of the much larger transformation of manufacturing — known today as Industry 4.0. The convergence of advanced automation, the industrial Internet of Things, and Big Data will require a workforce that uses brains more than brawn. Skills in IT, digital design and production management, supply chain management, analytics and integration will increasingly become essential in the field.

AD: How are businesses going about trying to find the skilled labor they need?

Lawton: Last year, Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that 70 percent of manufacturing executives reported shortages of workers with adequate technical and computer skills, while 69 percent say applicants lack problem-solving skills. It takes an average of 70 days to find and recruit skilled production workers, so the impact of these long vacancies is significant. There could be a shortage of two million manufacturing employees. A 2014 study by Accenture reported that the average U.S. manufacturer stands to lose 11 percent of its annual earnings, or $3,000 per existing employee, due to the talent shortage.

AD: What can be done to close the gap in labor that manufacturing is experiencing today?

Lawton: Perceptions about working in manufacturing, concerns about stability and wages, and a lack of commitment to training are keeping people from pursuing careers in manufacturing. I read recently that less than 1 percent of workers in manufacturing are getting advanced training. I believe the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum offered in so many school districts will be a significant contributor to filling the need in tomorrow’s workforce. Engaging in these efforts through sponsorships or internships is a positive move.

AD: Will robots of the future get more intelligent and more cost-efficient? If so, what does that mean for the labor market?

Lawton: Just as with our smart phones, software will make it possible for collaborative robots to get smarter and more sophisticated. They will not only change manufacturing, they will change the definition of work — and that is a good thing. Humans are not designed to stand in front of machine for eight hours a day and do the same thing over and over. No one wants these jobs. We believe that smart, collaborative robots provide a valuable solution to that challenge. In the new model for work, robots do the highly repetitive, low-skilled work, and humans 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.

AD: It seems a paradox. Most people think robots are not only more efficient than people, but also cool. Others feel that robots are largely responsible for the disappearance of jobs. Should we embrace robotic technology or fear it?

Lawton: While very new — and yes, very cool — the innovation that robots are bringing to our world represents the same kind of change that other innovations have brought to mankind. And as we have before, we will learn how to put this innovation to use to make our lives better. We’ve been here before, and we know that technology will never replace what it means to be human.
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