The Autonomous Manufacturer Blog

Understanding The Division of Labor In Robotics

It may seem like an eternity ago that collaborative robots, or cobots for short, were introduced to the labor force in an effort to help ease a burdening workload for employees who may have needed a hand. Their first use dates all the way back to the late 1990s when Northwestern University professors J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin helped invent them. As time has passed, their use has only increased. Advancements in robotics have allowed robots to alleviate the stress of demanding and tiring jobs. With fewer workers entering the manufacturing workforce as the years pass, more robots are being tasked with performing jobs that people simply do not want or have the energy to do on a long-term basis. With the saturation of robots in manufacturing, a clear division of labor is present, showing the ever-growing distance between human and robotic labor.


Traditionally, robots would execute tasks that never changed in nature; they repeated the same movements since the job itself wouldn’t change from part to part. The automotive industry has long used robots to help build different pieces of each car. However, that industry only represents 20% of manufacturing. In the time since the mass installation of robots in the automotive industry, more manufacturers are looking to automate their factories. It’s clear that they want to add robots to improve productivity after the largest shift in labor hit manufacturing harder than most other industries.

Cobots have assisted humans in various tasks for over two decades. Expanding robots to become fully autonomous can allow manufacturers to compensate for lost time and labor.

High-Mix Environments and Process Use-Cases

For high-mix environments, the pieces that need work often change in size and form. The processes aren’t always identical either as they can vary from powder coating, to sanding, to deburring. Each process has its own share of wrinkles too. For powder coating, there could be weak penetration of powder into the faraday cage areas. For sanding, it can be chatter marks. And for deburring, it can simply be the lack of precision by human hands. Regardless of the process, problems will inevitably arise and cause a backlog in production as humans can only work so fast under tiring conditions. 

The backlog only becomes more prevalent when you take into consideration the fact that fewer people work in manufacturing than ever before. In the 1950s and 60s, 36% of employed males worked in manufacturing; today that number hovers around 11%. Those that remain have to make up for the lost work.


Freeing Up Time & Labor

In an effort to compensate for the loss of manufacturing employees, High-Mix manufacturers have opted to invest heavily in robots. Through a myriad of options to help program the robots such as ROS, manufacturers can ensure that autonomous robots not only are capable of handling tasks that require a certain skill set, but that they can do so in a timely manner. 

By transitioning these tasks toward autonomous robots, manufacturers will also see several byproducts of this maturing technology. Autonomous robots can and will perform the necessary tasks but they won’t push the remaining human workers out of the factories. In fact, they will be as necessary as ever and their jobs, while less physically demanding, will allow them to achieve more by solving tasks that a robot can’t necessarily do.

Humans are intrinsically creative. Their best work can generally be achieved by allowing them to create and solve problems in different ways. If a manufacturer needs consistent sanding for different wooden parts, then it removes the physical strain from the employee who can instead focus on whether the machine is in good condition, if the pieces of wood can go to the robot without any game-breaking imperfections, or simply taking the extra time saved to devise a plan that could allow for faster production or fewer problems within the working environment.

Short-Term Planning For Labor Losses

Naturally, robots aren’t replacing every human in manufacturing. On the opposite side, humans aren’t exactly returning to manufacturing in droves now that the pandemic has eased. The goal isn’t to directly replace their labor either. Getting them back is another task on its own. In the interim, setting up an autonomous robotics system is an easy stopgap solution that can alleviate manufacturing employees in the short term, while alleviating costs for owners who need to continue to produce at the rates they’re used to.

Autonomous robots can compensate anywhere between 80-90% of a given manufacturer’s labor utilization, thus opening the gates for their employees to work on other tasks that have been paused due to production backlogs. Autonomous robots are still relatively new, but the industry is burgeoning. 

ROS allows for the programming of autonomous robots, but even that requires programmers to constantly update what the robots can do. Omnirobotic’s AutonomyStudio™ allows manufacturers to remove coding from the equation, instead opting for behaviors that will allow autonomous robots to see, plan, and act accordingly for every new part placed in their line of sight.

The labor shortage may begin easing up, but not all ex-manufacturing employees will return. To replace human labor for arduous tasks like sanding, autonomous robots can provide a stopgap solution to continue producing at high rates.

While autonomous robots at the moment may be short-term solutions for a long-term problem, in the future they will be even more powerful and capable, furthering the amount of time is freed up for employees looking to help their respective companies grow in a fruitful way.

With AutonomyOS™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems to sand various pieces of wood regardless of their sizes. Contact us to learn more