by Brian Huse (Director, Marketing & PR, RIA)
I’ve read that Americans have returned to most of their “old ways” since 9/11. Among the examples I saw was a spike and matching decline in church activity, donating blood and charitable giving. Other examples pointed toward heightened patriotism and almost unquestioned support for political leaders, which has lessened considerably in recent times.
I didn’t see a reference to 9/11 induced changes to our industrial sector, but I suspect we were jarred into a new normal that is not really the same, but not entirely different. We still must fight for customers and jobs, maybe more than ever, but whatever happens, I predict we will fight back with robots and vision.
For instance, we knew by the turn of the century we were in a worldwide fight for customers, and today the reality is an even more competitive global landscape. We knew back then that China would be a rising economic force, and now it is a huge factor in the industrial landscape.
Work has shifted to China, India and other nations where labor is cheap. That is nothing new, but an important and hefty counterforce is new applications for robotics and machine vision. Both technologies are used to ensure quality, and manufacturers install it regardless of the national borders. If they don’t, they can’t compete on quality – cheap labor is not a path to higher profits if you end up with recalls and a besmirched reputation.
Another change is the degree of integration robots have in factories. That has changed because the technology is changing fast, adapting to more applications, and proving itself successful and reliable where properly deployed. Many futurists predict the U.S. economy will be driven by the service sector, but flexible automation may surprise these pundits.
Specialized fabrication is usually an expensive and complicating factor in manufacturing. Our nation has a history of mass production of a basic product for a large customer base, with variations available, but still the production run needs to be pretty big for most commodities. Today, you can use robots for short runs and unique fabrications and save money. Machine vision adds to the flexibility. Together, these technologies allow us to manufacture in ways that allow companies to cost effectively target more and more market segments for their products.
One new area for robotics is the “first responder” segment – law enforcement, military, security and medical. Today, robots are used for bomb disposal and hostage crises, as scouts in dangerous enemy territory, search and rescue work and delicate or remote surgery. This is a new frontier that has already grown fast and is still too young to be completely assessed. However, it reinforces the fact that robots are intended to remove humans from danger (as well as from tasks made difficult by dull or dirty conditions).
Robots can be used in far more applications today thanks to greater computer horsepower and more than 30 years of improving the human machine interface. Many of the trailblazers in the robotics industry are still around and work for companies that belong to Robotic Industries Association. More universities and trade schools are producing gifted young professionals who are able to stand on the shoulders of our industry’s leaders, learn from them, and go on to find new innovations.
Industry may be changing. It may be migrating offshore for now. But the U.S. has always had a strong will to compete and foster new ways of doing business. We may shift to a service sector, or we may become more balanced between that and manufacturing, but either way, expect to see robots as part of the equation. Perhaps they will be mascots for some playful workers, and they may even work in the service sector, but I’m guessing they will help our manufacturers bring work back to North American factories and help us compete for top honors in the global market.
We can’t return to the days before 9/11, and we should never forget how it made us stronger. In fact, we have learned that robots can even help us fight war a new way, but as anyone in the industry will tell you, their main purpose is to add to the quality of life. There is no doubt in my mind that in the battle for global market share, manufacturing will fight back with robots, machine vision, and other forms of advanced technology.