The Age of the ‘Cobot’

Robots are being developed to work alongside humans

For centuries people have tinkered with the idea that robots could make our lives easier. The first industrial robot, the Unimate, was developed in 1954 and installed in a General Motors factory in 1961 for die-cast handling and spot welding.

That began a robotic revolution that continues to evolve today.

While robots have helped humankind tremendously, dozens of books and movies have dealt with the same plotline: scientists invent robots, robots gain intelligence and the ability to think on their own, robots kill humans and take over the world. Or at least take over everyone’s job.

Not to worry, said Mark A. Cosgrove, dean of technical careers at Lansing Community College (LCC). Human jobs will transform right along with the robotics industry.

LCC began offering classes in basic elements of robotics and automation about five years ago, Cosgrove said. The program expanded significantly in fall 2017 when the college opened its Center for Manufacturing Excellence.

Today LCC is ranked No. 2 in the nation as a technical school as defined by Real Work Matters, which is a clearinghouse of information on technical training designed to help students find the right school for them, Cosgrove said. 

“We teach students to operate, troubleshoot, maintain and program robots and automated systems. LCC has a purposefully designed robotics and automation lab that not only contains a host of individual teaching robots, but also an entire automated manufacturing production line,” Cosgrove explained. “This allows students to work on the basic elements of a production system as well as the system itself. We are one of the few schools in the country that has such an extensive system for student training.”

As the robotics industry advances, researchers predict the industrial robotics market will grow by 175% over the next decade. The primary focus of that growth will be on collaborative, assisting platforms rather than traditional automated machinery.

Enter the “cobot,” which is already in LCC’s toolbox.

“Our manufacturing production line uses a cobot as part of the system. It is designed to work with people and has safeguards built in to ensure the safety of those persons working with or around it,” Cosgrove said. “We are also working on a project that involves human and robotic interface.”

Amanda Grimm, operations director for Niowave Inc. in Lansing, said LCC will be instrumental in setting up Niowave’s robotics operations at the company’s Capital Region International Airport facility.

“Ideally, our airport facility has LCC’s instructors and students involved in the process of setting up our airport facility from the very beginning,” Grimm explained.

Robotics will play a dominant role in the airport facility because radioisotopes will be produced there.

“These isotopes are inherently radioactive; the same beneficial radiation that is injected into patients to eliminate cancer cells can be harmful to workers producing those isotopes since they handle larger quantities during production,” Grimm said. “In order to reduce the radiation dose delivered to Niowave operators during production, the airport facility will rely heavily on robotics and other automation methods. Robotics will ensure operators spend less time handling the radioactive substances, thereby reducing both the dose and human error.

“Robotics don’t forget steps during chemistry, get stressed under a time crunch or accidentally drop items,” Grimm explained. “They operate according to a preapproved code every time, so that the end product always turns out the same.”

But what about the human jobs that will be lost to robots?

It’s going to happen, Cosgrove said – just like it has happened time and time again throughout modern history.

“When people speak to me about automation taking away jobs, I like to respond by using the automobile as an example. Up until the late 1800s, the horse was the primary mode of transportation. All around the world, many industries were supported by the horse,” he explained.

All of a sudden there were cars, Cosgrove said. What happened to the hundreds of thousands of people around the world engaged in horse raising, horse selling, horse keeping, producing enough feed for millions of horses, blacksmithing, wagon making, and harness and saddle making?

“What happened to the horse industry workers and their descendants? They learned new skills that were needed in the new marketplace,” Cosgrove said. “Mechanics, sheet metal workers, foundry and steelworkers, automotive production workers, tire and rubber factories, an entire petroleum industry, and so on. There is nothing different going on here today.”

Grimm agreed.

“What we have at this stage in technology is a need to transition the skills of our workforce; technology will not eliminate jobs, but it does change the scope of job requirements,” she said. “We see a larger need at this day and age for candidates who know how to incorporate technology into their existing careers so they can operate more efficiently.”

Cosgrove said that is where LCC and other schools with industrial studies come in. They work with local industry to identify the skill sets necessary to fill the open positions within the local economy, and design programs to teach those skills to their students.

“LCC has many options for full-time students as well as those seeking to upgrade skills that allow people to attend classes while still meeting the challenges and obligations that are part of everyday life,” he said. “For the investment of one or two years at LCC, persons who are worried about the loss of jobs due to automation will find themselves well-positioned to take advantage of the good-paying jobs that are currently all around us.” 

Grimm said the LCC programs – robotics, mechatronics, CNC machining, information technology – assist in developing new skills to complement the technology.

“That is why LCC’s programs are so valuable,” Grimm explained. “People can go back to school mid-career to learn how to use advancing technology and incorporate it into their existing positions.”

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