How robots can play a role in creating jobs during economic recovery

Paul Boughton
While Europe waits to see how the problems with the Euro will be resolved, there is a technology that could help Europe to recover from the recession, and that is robotics. Jon Severn discussed this with Dr Shinsuke Sakakibara, the President of IFR (International Federation of Robotics), which is currently promoting the philosophy that 'robots create jobs'.

Industrial robots have been with us for around 50 years and are now crucial to the efficient and flexible production of high-quality automobiles, electronic devices and countless other products. It is estimated that at the end of 2010 there were over one million industrial robots operating worldwide. However, the market for industrial robots suffered badly in the recession, with the number of shipments falling to 60000 units worldwide in 2009, which was a 47 per cent decrease compared with 2008. Nevertheless, the market recovered quickly, with shipments in 2010 (118 000 units) being marginally higher than for 2008. As an aside, the European market currently accounts for 25 per cent of the global shipments.

Dr Shinsuke Sakakibara (Fig.1) says of the market recovery: "The financial crisis of 2008/2009, which was the leading cause of the global economic crisis, put a halt to the worldwide trend toward automation. But it could not stop it. In 2010, and also in 2011, companies were forced to invest in modernisation, retooling and even in expanding capacity in order to meet changing demand and to provide higher quality and higher productivity. We anticipate that this path will continue." Given their dominance of the market for industrial robots, it is not surprising that the two industries leading the recovery were automotive and electrical/electronics.

Compared with the numbers of industrial robots, the global shipments of professional service robots appear small, at under 14000 for 2010. Of these, around 75 per cent were for defence or field applications. But approximately 2.2million service robots were sold for personal and domestic use, which is an increase of 35 per cent compared with 2009. Most of these 2.2million robots are relatively low-cost products such as vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, and entertainment and leisure robots. While the numbers of robots for assisting handicapped people are still relatively low, it is thought that there is potential for a large increase over the next five to ten years.

Industrial and service robots usually have very different requirements and characteristics, yet there are also many underlying similarities, as Dr Sakakibara explains: "Of course, there are a lot of common technologies between industrial robots and service robots in mechanisms, controllers and sensors. Industrial robot manufacturers are more and more expanding into service robotics applications, eg by developing mobile platforms, lightweight arms and by expanding industrial robots applications in the medical field - which then is per definition a service robot. This will increase over the next years.

"IFR of course is encouraging co-operation and offers an excellent platform for exchange and knowledge transfer between all robotics areas. The annual Symposium on Robotics provides a perfect opportunity to learn about the most current innovations of service robots and industrial robots. The 43rd International Symposium on Robotics 2012 (ISR 2012) will be held in Taipei. The conference theme is: Intelligent Robot-Human Interaction. This is a typical example for the converging of technologies of service and industrial robots."

Robot-human interaction

Currently it is unusual to have industrial robots and humans working alongside each other without some form of safety barrier, as the robots tend to be powerful and therefore have the potential to cause serious injury. In some applications there could be major advantages in having closer human-robot interaction, and there are already some successful examples of this from companies such as Reis. Elsewhere, several technologies for enabling closer robot-human interaction are being developed by robot manufacturers and research and development (R&D) organisations around the world.

Robot-human interaction is just one of the current areas of robotics research. While robot manufacturers are clearly very active in R&D, there are also a number of ICT (information and communications technology) companies that are getting involved. Dr Sakakibara says: "Robotics is a technology at the cusp. It is a highly interdisciplinary scientific field combining mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science and even natural and social sciences. In the service robotics field, hardware manufacturers and ICT companies are well aware of this fact and are already searching for enhanced co-operation. Google/Willow Garage with ROS (Robot Operating System) and the PR2 (Personal Robot 2) platform, or Microsoft with its Robotics Developer Studio, are providing (open source) software for robotics and are trying hard to become the platform for service robotics. All players are aware that only plug-and-play solutions will make robots mainstream devices.

"In the industrial robotics field, robot manufacturers are working hard on making programming easier. Off-line programming and simulation tools already make robot applications easier. The programming of industrial robots is the core competence of the robot suppliers. Therefore, it may be difficult to organise a co-operation with ITC companies for programming."

In many fields today, from mobile telephones to factory automation controls, rapid software development means that this aspect of the product becomes an important differentiator. While it might be expected that the same is true for robotics, Dr Sakakibara says this is not so: "Robotics is an integration of mechanics, electronics, sensing technologies and ICT. So, I think the robot mechanism remains as important as other technologies such as software, even if it advances more quickly."

Funded research

In Europe, national Governments and the European Commission have realised the potential benefits of investing in research into robotics. Dr Sakakibara states: "Overall in Europe there is a high level of public funding; on the European level, as well as on a national level, funding bodies have bestowed a significant amount of money on robotics-related research. The European Commission has spent EUR536million in the period 2007-2012 for cognitive and robotics-related research, bringing it into a leadership position. This funding is gratefully acknowledged by the European robotics community.

"Academic and industrial key players are aware that now the time is ripe to significantly accelerate innovation by strengthening the ties between academia and industry and by making public funding available for testing and validating the excellent research results in industrial settings. On a national level, robotics has also come into the focus and governments are well aware of the challenges and chances lying ahead for robotics."

In terms of European manufacturing companies investing in robots for production, it is interesting to review how the situation is evolving. Only a few years ago a company might have invested in robotics to avoid losing business to competitors from low-wage economies. But now China, Brazil and other emerging economies are also investing in robots, though the driver here is more likely to be quality than productivity. Dr Sakakibara's view is that "Consumer products are increasingly individualised with quick times to market (meaning more versions or variants of the goods available for the consumers). This requires flexible automation and high quality. Robots are precise and consistent; they can continuously produce high-quality finished products."

He goes on to outline other benefits of robotics for manufacturers in European and, of course, elsewhere: "Robots can improve the working conditions for the staff. Dangerous, tedious and dirty work is transferred from man to machine. Not only is the environment cleaner for the worker, but also the job is less physically fatiguing. In addition, by educating the workers on how to use robots they can learn valuable programming skills and perform more stimulating tasks. By using robots, the likelihood of accidents caused by contact with machine tools or other potentially hazardous production machinery or processes can be reduced."

Creating jobs

This covers many of the advantages offered by robots to manufacturing companies, but what of the IFR's philosophy that 'robots create jobs'? In November 2011 a report was published by the IFR entitled 'Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment'. According to the report, the one million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs. Moreover, a growth in robot use over the next five years will result in a further one million high-quality jobs being created around the world. Robots will help to create jobs in many diverse industries, including consumer electronics, food, solar and wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing.

In additional to the million jobs expected to be created directly by the increased use of robots, the report also states that saving manufacturing jobs also leads to jobs being saved in the wider community (Fig.2). Looking ahead five years, the report's authors estimate that an additional 45000 people will be required in the industrial robotics sector, which is a significant increase on the 300000 people already employed. Moreover, the service robotics sector is expected to grow even faster than the industrial sector in the medium term and could be another major source of jobs.

It is often said that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have an important role to play in bringing an economy out of recession, as they can be adaptable and agile. Robots are similarly adaptable and agile, and there is a growing trend towards SMEs investing in robotics for reasons of productivity, quality, and health and safety. It would be unreasonable to expect that robotics alone could bring an end to the difficult economic conditions in Europe, but it is true that robotics can benefit manufacturing companies and economies alike.

Safe co-operation between robots and humans

Reis Group Holding GmbH, which develops and manufactures industrial robots and robot controls, also creates turnkey automation systems. The company has recently developed a complete robotic welding cell in which it is safe for the operator to remain close to the robot as it is welding. From this position the operator can watch the welding process and be available immediately to take corrective measures if necessary (Fig. 3).