How have robots been designed with the needs and skills of the workforce in mind? Jason Walker, co-founder and chief executive officer with Waypoint Robotics, addresses the issue.
SCB: What do we mean when we talk about robots for the workforce, as distinct from those for other types of applications?
Walker: The issue is that robots have always been something that either displaced workers or were placed next to them, and they’ve had to put up with them and work around them. For the first time in history, we're developing robots for the workforce, and we think other robotics companies ought to be doing that too.
SCB: What do you mean by "for the workforce"?
Walker: Traditionally, robots have been so hard to set up and use that you needed to be a robotics or automation engineer. The work of small to mid-sized manufacturers is variable, and changes every day. So setting up a single rigid configuration wasn't worth it, if it had to be reset up by an expert every time.
"For the workforce" means that whoever's on that loading dock or assembly can take ownership of the robot. They can be the ones to configure and reconfigure it, and to put it to use. They become part of Industry 4.0, and the automation future of their company.
SCB: In order to make that happen, you have to do either train the worker to become sophisticated enough to deal with a robot, or create a robot that's simple enough to be understood by the typical worker.
Walker: What you just described is the skills gap. Traditionally it’s been dealt with by retraining workers — sending them off to community college or somewhere else to figure out how to deal with the machine. We looked at that and said, "Why can't we cross the gap?" So we made a robot that's so easy to use that workers can grasp what's going on. We can train them how to use it in 15 minutes. Our message to the industry, the folks making the robots as well as the ones buying them, is, "This should be your objective — to design your products with the workforce in mind. Make something they can use."
SCB: Is it like being being able to drive a car without knowing what's going on under the hood? Is that your vision of what a robot should be?
Walker: Better than that. We use what we call a "Bobby First" design philosophy. We invented this persona of Bobby, who’s been doing that job forever, and knows it better than anyone working on the docks. Our litmus test is, "Are we doing the right thing? Are we simplifying the technology enough so that Bobby can make sense of it?"
SCB: Human employees can feel a lot of apprehension when a robot comes on the scene, even if the robot’s not there to take their job away. How do you deal with that?
Walker: When we do a demo for a company, we ask them to go get somebody out of their shipping and receiving office, off the assembly line, and bring them into the demo. They look over my shoulder when I'm setting it up. Halfway through it, I hand them the iPad and they start running the robot, while I keep talking to the folks who are asking questions. By the end of it, they're trained, interested and excited. They're actually doing real work with this robot in the course of the demo. They're part of the automation process, and the future of the company. They know their company is investing in them as well as in the equipment.
SCB: They don't feel that they're training the robot to eventually take over their job?
Walker: If they have, they haven't told me. What I see on their faces is enthusiasm. They’re excited that this is a tool they can use, because every other machine that's come in has been one that's pushed them to the side.
SCB: In what types of settings does this particular technology best function? We’re here at a material handling show, where it's all about distribution centers and warehousing. Is that a particularly good spot for this technology to be installed?
Walker: It works really well in those situations, but we've actually designed for what we think is a more difficult situation, which is small to mid-sized manufacturers, where the work changes all the time. Dealing with variability is one of the things that companies have to solve to make their products “Bobby First.”
SCB: Still, when I think of factories, I envision facilities that are especially prone to total automation. Why should people be in there at all? Do they actually have a role in the continued manufacturing of product within the four walls of the plant?
Walker: If you're talking about Ford, where everything's choreographed to the millisecond, that's a different story. If you're talking about the other 90 percent of American manufacturing, where it’s a 50-year-old machine shop and they haven't done anything towards automation, they still have machinists who are walking a quarter of a mile from one end of the factory to the other to pick up materials.
The machinists hate that — they know it's a waste of their capabilities. On a day-to-day basis, it's physically exhausting. So there’s an opportunity for that worker to have a better life, because you're not doing an essential but low-value task. In a labor market as tight as what we have now, that's a big win, irrespective of all the other easily calculable ROIs.
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