Time to join the robotics revolution?

Feb. 2, 2015
In this Big Picture Interview, John Martini explains what's new, what's now and what to consider before you invest.

John Martini is an assistant professor of electronics technology at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith, where he teaches classes in the robotics certification program. His educational background includes an Associate of Applied Science in electronics technology from UAFS when it was Westark, a bachelor of arts in liberal studies from the University of Oklahoma, and a master of arts in management from Webster University.

PS: From where we stand at the start of 2015, how do you see automation and robotics revolutionizing manufacturing and production in the U.S.?

JM: I see that for a lot of companies, automation is the way they can compete against foreign manufacturers that are taking away business because of manpower. China can throw a lot of people at a manufacturing process and not have to do automation if they don't want to, and so can Mexico. But now American manufacturers are finding out that with automation, they become more competitive. And then they don't have to worry about shipping, either. If I don't have to ship a container from overseas or out of country, then I don't have to worry about going through quarantine or paying excise taxes. I can get a more direct point of sales. I think that helps.

PS: What are some of the robotics innovations you're most excited about?

JM: In manufacturing I think one of the exciting things is the use of cameras. One of the things that anybody who majors in computer science really needs to study when you talk about robotics is vision. Cameras become the eyes of the robot, where they can actually see what's going on in the process, recognize colors, and make decisions based on what they see.

Also, with vision, now you can have robots doing inspections. Back in the day, if you were doing quality control, normally you couldn't inspect every part because it would take too much time. But with a robotic system, every part needs inspection, because a robot can't accept a part that's not precise. With a vision system, the robots almost stop you from making mistakes as you go.

Beyond vision, some of the tried-and-true robotics systems are just getting better, too. Welding's getting better all the time, and spray painting is another good one. Smart robots, using AI (artificial intelligence), actually can learn a process from a human. That's how you teach a robot how to do spray painting on a car. You let the human do the fluid motion, and at the same time, the robot is memorizing the motion that the human is teaching it, and then it just plays that back over and over again. So you get that nice, smooth painting stroke you normally would have to have a human do.

The UAFS robotics lab in action, where students develop hands-on skills in installing, commissioning and maintaining a robot system and design and implement robot programming projects.

Really, as far as the painting process for automobiles and for any manufacturing process that involves spray painting, the robotic way is so much safer and so much more reliable than the human way. There are lots of hazardous chemicals in paints, and robots can sit in their little plastic cubes all day and go at it. Memorizing or learning procedure from a human and then duplicating that procedure—that's something manufacturers with robotics systems are using a lot now.

PS: From a production standpoint, what are keys to maximizing a robotics system's efficiency?

JM: At the start, you want to design a robotic system for manufacturability, because you want to minimize any kind of complexity in assembly. The simpler you can keep it, the easier it will be for the robot to do the process, and in the long run, the more precise and the more quality the parts are going to be. When you minimize parts and you minimize the complexity of the parts, you minimize errors because you've actually improved the process that the robot is going to do.

PS: What are the top considerations that plant managers need to weigh when they're deciding whether to invest in robotics systems?

JM: There are good reasons for using robots in manufacturing, but one of the mistakes people make is they automatically think, "OK, if I start using a robot, productivity is going to go up"—not necessarily so. And they'll think, "Intelligent machines can do the same job as trained workers and save labor costs by replacing workers." Not necessarily so. It depends on the process you're doing and how you're using the robot.

A key disadvantage is cost, because it is a capital investment, and an expensive one. A big investment in robotics will pay off in time only if you're doing your homework – you'd better do a little bit of research before you start spending those big bucks, because not every process is conducive to robotics. So, does a robot increase productivity automatically? No. But a robot over time will out-produce a human, because robots don't have to take potty breaks, robots don't have to go to lunch, and robots don't go on vacation.

Robots also can improve quality, because of the accuracy of the process they're programmed to do. If they're designed for manufacturability, you are going to get a better product. They can reduce personal injuries and improve safety, too, and they can hold down or reduce production costs.

Does that mean you have to replace everybody with robots? Actually, studies have shown that really, a robot only replaces less than two workers. Because when you add a robot, what you are doing is gaining the cost of a more-skilled worker. You're kind of offsetting maybe a less-skilled worker with a more-skilled worker who will do more for you with the robot.

You as the administrator or the plant manager have to look at, "Is this really going to help us in our process, or is it just something that's a fad?" Is it a case of "Everybody else is doing it, so we better do it"? If you're making Widget X, and you've been making it the same way for 10 years, and it's still a good Widget X, it sells great, there's no competition, you've got a good quality, and the process is super-fast, and the product meets the demands of your customers, why do you want to change that?

Now, if you get to the point where you're needing to change your process every year or every few months, then you'll be spending 10 times as much on automated machines than on a robotics process. The beauty of robotics is they're not hindered by quick changeover. The robot is the brains of the work cell, and the robot is programmable and reprogrammable. It can change dynamically.

So, overall, the answer isn't always going to be "yes" for robotics. You have to make sure that you match the technology for the need in order to realize the benefits.

PS: How is a growing reliance on robotics affecting workforce needs?

JM: I think your maintenance crew now has to be a little more versatile. The maintenance worker is no longer just a mechanic or just an electrician or an electronic technician—they're kind of like a mixture of all of those. Plus, whether a maintenance worker likes it or not, they are going to have to learn programming, because almost everything now is based off programming.

Right here in the Fort Smith area, there is only one professional robotic technician working right now. Other technicians are doing that work as they can. But there are close to 50 companies around that are using robotics. There are opportunities out there for anyone interested in robotics.

At UAFS, we worked to develop a curriculum that targeted specific robotics proficiencies. I identified things we need, like training for our teachers, and our chancellor took our recommendations and the recommendations of our technical partner, Baldor, and went down to talk to then-Gov. Mike Beebe about a grant. The chancellor spent 10 minutes in the office and the governor said, "How much do you need?"

We received $300,000 from the governor's office. It was a gift to the university as a grant—the governor expected us to create jobs with it. That enabled us to buy the equipment we needed for the curriculum.

The nice thing that's happening right now is the robotics classes are so well thought of that now computer science people want to take them and engineering folks want to take them. This semester, we've added a robot programming class, and we've made it an upper-division class for the bachelor's degree program.

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