How have robots changed manufacturing?
Break things down to the original Latin and manufacturing is literally a matter of using your hands (manu) to make things (factura). Robots are a different story. The term comes to us from the Czech word robotnik, which means nothing short of slave labor. Don't let science fiction and Japanese cuteness confuse you: Humans created robots to do their drudge work.
Factories first opened their doors to modern industrial robots in 1961. That's when Unimate joined the General Motors workforce. Unimate was essentially a 4,000-pound (1,814-kilogram) arm attached to a giant steel drum. The Unimate robots boasted remarkable versatility for the time and could easily pour liquid metal into die casts, weld auto bodies together and manipulate 500-pound (227-kilogram) payloads.
In other words, Unimate could perform tasks that humans often found dangerous or boring, and it could do them with consistent speed and precision. It never called in sick, went on strike or violated company rules. It covered all three shifts in a 24-hour period without drawing a single minute of overtime. Needless to say, factory owners grew to like this no-nonsense new addition.
Robot factory workers aren't without their limitations, however. In their simplest forms, industrial robots are mere automatons. Humans program them to perform a simple task, and they repeat that task over and over again. Tasks that require decision-making, creativity, adaptation and on-the-job learning tend to go to the humans.
But when a job's just right for a robot, productivity tends to increase dramatically. For instance, Australia's Drake Trailers installed a single welding robot on its production line and benefited from a reported 60 percent increase in productivity [source: ABB Australia].
The most obvious impact of industrial mechanization is that it eliminates many unskilled job positions. This has especially been the case in United States and Japan, two countries that illuminate important factors in the robot takeover.
Japan suffers from negative population growth, and the younger members of its workforce are generally disinclined to take what they may perceive as dull manufacturing jobs. Industrial robots, therefore, have been a true advantage in that they fill unwanted factory jobs and create more technical positions dedicated to their upkeep. In the same way that a computerized office depends on various techies, so too do robotic workers require technical upkeep.
The United States, on the other hand, has seen a great deal of its factory business flee to China and other countries, where human labor is simply cheaper. Even domestic factory automation, with its allure of improved productivity and efficiency, has failed to tip the scales.
What will the future bring? Despite the economic downturn in 2009, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) observed a global surge in industrial robot demand for 2010. According to IFR estimates, the year 2013 will see Earth's population of industrial robots exceed 1.1 million [source: IFR]
Meanwhile, roboticists continue to stretch the boundaries of what industrial robots can do, such as in the field of machine learning, tactile sensing and socially intelligent robots. The future will likely see machines working alongside humans and even learning from them to perform an increasing number of manufacturing tasks.