Will Packaging Robots Make Humans Obsolete?
Since the dawn of automation, the media has been there to strike fear into the hearts of employees everywhere with claims that robots could take their job at any time. But how accurate are these claims? What does automation mean for the packaging industry – and for jobs currently filled by human beings?
You’ve seen the stories from Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, and CNN with headlines like “Robots could take over 38% of U.S. jobs within 15 years.” The drumbeat (and subsequent hand-wringing, anxiety, nerves, and flat-out panic) of these articles has never slowed to a halt, but in fall of last year, their frequency and the direness of their headlines reached a fever pitch. Conversely, WIRED Magazine offers this take: “The Great Tech Panic: Robots Won’t Take All Our Jobs.” There’s even a widget that allows you to type in your own occupation to see if robots will, in fact, take your job (For purposes of this article, the author typed in “writer” and was met with this result: “Automation Risk Level – Totally safe, or 3.8% probability of automation.” Neat!)
With reports of Amazon’s fleet of over 45,000 warehouse robots and new companies adding similar innovations every day, warehouse workers and material handlers may not be so lucky — or, are they the lucky ones?
According to industry insider Packaging Digest’s Lisa McTigue Pierce, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are taking over for packaging line replenishment and other manufacturing tasks because of their natural adaptability to ever-present changes in production. But should you add them to your team? Here’s what you need to know.
McTigue Pierce cites a Design News piece, where analysts from research firm IDC Manufacturing Insights reported on trends in robot development and deployment. Chief among them: Mobile robots are gaining traction over their stationary siblings, partly because of their ability to adjust as needed. IDC’s Research Director John Santagate of IDC Manufacturing Insights noted the most interesting development is the growth of the mobile platform robot with the capability to attach a variety of components. Santagate specifically called these “service robots for warehouse and fulfillment centers.”
Danish robotics manufacturer Mobile Industrial Robots experienced the growth Santagate mentioned firsthand. In her piece, McTigue Pierce notes Mobile Industrial Robots saw revenues from AMRs triple, fueled by the company’s spring 2017 launch of the MiR200, an autonomous mobile robot that can lift about 440 pounds and pull more than 1,000 pounds. Both feats of Herculean strength that no human could similarly undertake.
McTigue Pierce also cites the ROBO Global LLC benchmark index, which tracks the global robotics and automation markets, noting that Mobile Industrial Robots now has more robots maneuvering through plants all across the world than any other manufacturer, with 25% of its sales occurring in the United States. Is this a direct translation to 25% of jobs in the United States now being filled by robots? Of course not. Instead, this specific robotic technology is being developed to efficiently work alongside humans, not replace them entirely.
In her piece, McTigue Pierce interviewed Mobile Industrial Robots’ Vice President of Sales in North America, Ed Mullen, on key questions about these collaborative coworkers.
Mullen noted various assets AMRs can bring to a workspace, including an adept ability to adapt to changing facility layouts:
“If the facility layout changes, which it often does in agile businesses, it is usually quite expensive to change the AGV [automated guided vehicles] guidance. The AMR, on the other hand, navigates via maps that its software constructs on-site or via pre-loaded facility drawings. The AMR uses data from cameras, built-in sensors and laser scanners, as well as sophisticated software, to detect its surroundings and choose the most efficient route to the target. Navigating this way makes the AMR easy and cost-efficient to implement in even dynamic facilities because it only needs a map.”
Notably, this makes an autonomous mobile robot easier to implement than an automatic guided vehicle, says Mullen. “An AMR can be deployed in just a few hours. It works completely autonomously, and if obstacles like people, pallets or forklifts occur in front of it, the AMR will safely maneuver around them, using the best alternative route. This optimizes productivity by ensuring that material flow stays on schedule.”
Essentially, autonomous mobile robots thrive on their ability to seamlessly integrate into imperfect and fundamentally human workspaces, unlike their automatic guided vehicle predecessors and counterparts. If AMRs are to replace anything, it sounds like they’d make an excellent substitute for AGVs – not for humans.
Mullen noted that autonomous mobile robots’ flexibility does not only positively impact workflow – they can also be much less costly and cost prohibitive than their automatic guided vehicle counterparts:
“The autonomous operation also makes an AMR far more flexible than an AGV. Being limited to following a strict route that is integrated into the facility means applications for AGVs are limited and an AGV performs the same delivery task throughout its service life. Changes are simply too expensive and disruptive to be cost-effective. The AMR only needs simple software adjustments to change its missions, so the same robot can perform a variety of tasks at different locations, automatically making adjustments to meet changing environments and production requirements.”
McTigue Pierce followed-up with a question especially relevant to the industry: How are the company’s mobile robots used in packaging?
The options are virtually endless, but for now, Mullen notes a primary use for an autonomous mobile robot in a packaging facility setting, one that eases the job of a human being but does not replace it: in-house transportation.
“Mobile robots are mostly used to transport the items that need to be packed, such as from end-of-line production or a warehouse to the packing station, and then again, handle the in-house transportation of the packed goods to a loading central or warehouse. Mobile robots are able to tow carts or even a pallet fork, so they can carry full pallets or many packages at the same time.
“Spending time pushing carts or towing pallet forks is not a very valuable task,” Mullen continued. “The mobile robots free humans from all in-house transportation tasks in production, warehouse or packaging environments, and can, therefore, be redeployed for more valuable tasks than moving goods from one place to another.”
Those concerned about being replaced by artificial intelligence and robotics may be heartened to know that, so far, AMRs optimize workflows, but work more as partners with their human counterparts to boost productivity levels than total replacements.
“For example, companies avoid bottlenecks from production to packaging with the mobile robots,” Mullen said. “Usually, when humans are handling the in-house transportation, the products are batched for a few pick-times per shift because the transportation needs to be done effectively—but this way impacts the production and packaging flow. Because the robots can run deliveries 24/7 and do not need breaks, the in-house transportation can be done on demand, which boosts productivity and efficiency of operations.”
McTigue Pierce also asked Mullen about safety, though Mullen’s responses are specific to Mobile Industrial Robots’ MiR200 model and, thus, not a holistic look at safety standards across the industry. However, the booming growth of the robotics industry, coupled with the United States’ zeal for such products, means standardized safety considerations are likely on the horizon.
The MiR200, for example, can navigate through a changing, dynamic environment. “In case of an inattentive human stumbling in front of the MiR robot, a laser vision scanning system will interpret the obstruction fast enough to either reroute or stop to prevent a collision,” said Mullen. “We can recognize obstacles out up to 50 feet and plan to go around them, or make a safe stop to not bump into or hurt someone.”
As to why robots are taking off in the U.S., specifically, Mullen offers thoughts on that, too. “The U.S. market is a bit more mature for automation in general, and many early adaptors [sic] of our robots have been American,” Mullen said. “There is a big market need for smart automation of in-house transportation. Many companies have highly automated productions, and now they are ready to take the next step: to automate material transportation to reduce production bottlenecks and deploy valuable human workers effectively. They need the flexible, collaborative and autonomous features of mobile robots because this is the only in-house transportation method that is suitable for today’s agile businesses.
“We see a clear trend where large, multinational corporations have started deploying more and more collaborative mobile robots into their facilities all over the world. Many are still testing various applications, and the more robots they get into a facility, the more applications they often see,” Mullen said.
So: Are robots’ numbers growing? Are we seeing vast increases in robotic colleagues across the U.S.? Without a doubt, yes. But are robots taking over our jobs? Not quite.
Back to WIRED Magazine’s platitude (or, perhaps, plea): Chill. While investment in robotics in the U.S. is undoubtedly growing, the industry still pales in comparison to most others. Take, for instance, one of WIRED’s comparisons: robots vs. pets. Currently, the U.S. invests about $11.3 billion in robotics annually. As for pets? Americans comparatively spend more than $66.8 billion on their pets annually – a solid six times more than on robots, and we can promise Fido’s not coming for your job anytime soon.
In the same piece, author James Surowiecki offers a hypothesis for the robot takeover panic: coincidence.
“Between 2000 and 2009, 6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs disappeared, and wage growth across the economy stagnated. In that same period, industrial robots were becoming more widespread, the internet seemed to be transforming everything, and AI became really useful for the first time. It seemed logical to connect these phenomena: Robots had killed the good-paying manufacturing job, and they were coming for the rest of us next.”
Surowiecki notes this panic isn’t new, citing a similar apprehension and anxiety toward automation and computerization back in the 1950s and 1960s. For an even earlier timeline, CNN offers the quaint but undeniable example of horses and cars in their own piece on the subject: “Almost 100 years ago, the U.S. horse population peaked at about 26 million,” wrote Matt McFarland, “There’s been, of course, a steady decline since then, thanks to the growth of machines — most notably, cars.”
The CNN piece goes on to articulate jobs at high risk for automation (cashiers, toll booth operators, even drivers alongside the advent of driverless cars) and those at low risk (nurses and physicians, hairstylists and cosmetologists, even youth sports coaches).
Obviously, the subject is rife with debate – now and for the foreseeable future – and inflammatory headlines will continue to abound. But for now, let’s end with a spark of optimism shown in yet another of those headlines – Forbes’ “The Paradox of Robots Taking All Our Jobs.” In it, contributor Adam Ozimek writes: “If machines are going to be better than humans at everything, than this includes educating humans. So when you picture humans competing against these super smart machines, you have to include the super smart machines that will help humans achieve their maximum potential… That should give the biggest worriers a bit of optimism.”
Let’s hope it does.