In 2007, a General Motors commercial airing during the Super Bowl made headlines when it showed an automobile assembly line robot throwing itself off a bridge after losing it’s job. While many were critical of the advertisement for its depiction of suicide, the commercial struck a chord with others for its portrayal of a very sympathetic and human-like robot.
It was a different characterization than what has been common in popular media where robots have often been depicted with sinister overtones. Many science fiction movies featuring robots often present a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of technological advancement. In the end, the robots always have one goal: destroy the human race.
These portrayals stoke fears that as technology advances, humans will lose their jobs and be replaced by robots. But the GM commercial showed something different, a world where benevolent robots work in tandem with humans. And it’s this depiction that has thus far proved closer to reality.
Rise of the cobots
The idea of robots and humans working collaboratively isn’t exactly a new concept. Robots have been operating in the manufacturing sector for decades, taking on repetitive or dangerous tasks like welding or painting. And in the automotive industry, companies like GM has long been using robots - like those seen in the 2007 commercial - on assembly lines.
But over the past decade, a new kind of collaborative robot has been seeing greater use across multiple industries. These relatively new innovations are being used in workplaces to help employees work more efficiently. As opposed to other robots, designed to operate autonomously or with limited guidance, these 'cobots' are made to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace.
According to a recent report by CB Insights, a machine intelligence platform, the cobots market is expected to grow to $10 billion over the next decade. A large portion of this growth will likely be a result of labor shortages in the manufacturing realm where industrial robots have long been utilized.
According to the CB report, 2.7 million skilled manufacturing laborers in the United States, are set to retire in the next decade.
A number of other industries are poised for influx of cobots as well. Here are three industries cobots are moving into next.
In September, the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.7%, a 48 year low. And as unemployment falls, a number of large ecommerce companies like Amazon have been struggling to find enough workers to fill openings at their labor centers.
Last year Amazon held a “Jobs Day” with the goal of receiving 50,000 job applications. Unfortunately, the company on received just 20,000 applications.
In anticipation of a possible labor shortage, Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, a mobile robotic fulfillment system manufacturer. Its robots are used in Amazon warehouses to retrieve portable storage units. When an order is placed, a software system sends information to the robots which retrieve the pods containing items and take them human workers for picking.
Agriculture is another industry currently experiencing a labor shortage. According to the Western Growers association there is a 15-20% shortage of farmworkers. And as result of the United State’s new immigration policies, many believe the number of farmworkers will continue to decline.
The majority of larger farms already use automated farming equipment such as robotic arm pickers and self-driving tractors, but cobots are poised to give farmers more options.
Traditionally robots have been unable to handle some of the more intricate tasks associated with agriculture. This included tasks like picking delicate produce that would be easily crushed in robotic hands. But cobots are designed to be less heavy duty, more gentle and safer because they are made to work with humans. This means that as cobot technology advances, they will be able to take on more agricultural tasks.
While many have worried that new technology will lead to declining employment, a number of industries are actually experiencing shortages as a result of innovation. The food service industry currently sits at 6% unemployment, and many restaurants are turning to cobots to help fill gaps.
In March, a fast-food restaurant in California, CaliBurger, debuted a burger flipping robot. According to Caliburger management the restaurant struggled to hang on to short order cooks because the employees often quit after working a few weeks. The $100,000 robot, named Flippy, is capable of making 2,000 burgers per day and works in tandem with human employees who help construct the burgers.
Hopefully these developments will help ease fears that technology will put people out of work. While declining unemployment is certainly a positive achievement for the United States, it’s becoming clear that technology has become an important component in addressing workforce shortages.
Cobots will help employers maintain consistency in the face of shifting employment levels, while allowing employees to work more efficiently.
Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash.