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Rise of robots means manufacturing will never be the same

The greater use of robotics and the changing shape of manufacturing is spelt out in a new report form CBI Insights. The report is titled “Top AI Trends To watch in 2018”. Here the report demonstrates how traditional manufacturing jobs are both very vulnerable to being outsourced to developing countries where labor costs are cheaper; and they are vulnerable to being replaced by machines.

Common applications of robots in industrial settings include welding, painting, assembly, pick and place for printed circuit boards, packaging and labeling. In addition, robots are used for palletizing, product inspection, and testing. The primary reason for adopting robots is due to their high endurance, speed, and precision.

As an example, Chinese T-shirt manufacturer Tianyuan Garments Company signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Arkansas government to employ 400 workers at a new garment factory in Arkansas. These jobs, however, are different to those that would have bene in place five or ten years ago. Instead of relying heavily on humans to make the ubiquitous causal wear, Tianyuan’s new factory in Little Rock, Arkansas will use sewing robots.

These robots have been developed by Georgia-based startup SoftWear Automation, and they are already being used to manufacture apparel for Adidas. In 2015, SoftWear Automation introduced a machine called LOWRY, which is a sewing robot that employs machine vision to spot and adjust to distortions in fabric. It can also sew far faster than any human. According to Quartz, the robot can produce about 1,142 T-shirts in an eight-hour period. This compares to just 669 for an equivalent human sewing line.

Across the manufacturing spectrum, the CB Insights report notes, much of the heavy lifting will be performed by the robots. This means the most common role for a human in manufacturing will be tasks like robot maintenance and operation. Not only are tasks changing but the numbers employed in the sector will never be, as of 2018 and beyond, the same as they were in 2008.

In the U.S., for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, under its definition of the manufacturing industry, predicts for quality control inspectors and assembler and fabricators, core to traditional manufacturing, a negative reduction in roles due to the impact of automation.

Automation, however, shows no immediate sign of eliminating humans completely from industry. With Amazon’s warehouse robots, while these machines perform much of the heavy lifting, workers are still required for tasks like “picking” items off shelves and slotting them into separate orders. This is because, the report notes, robots remain less-than-perfect at gripping, picking, and handling items in unstructured environments.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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