The Key to Strengthening U.S. Manufacturing? Collaboration

By Jay Douglass, COO, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM)

Jay Douglass, COO, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM)
Jay Douglass, COO, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM)

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted areas of need in American manufacturing. When the pandemic hit, manufacturing processes that relied on manual tasks by humans were either halted or provided potential health risks to those workers. The nation’s supply chains experienced delays and roadblocks. Our manufacturers initially struggled to scale up operations to create critical PPE, showcasing the lack of flexibility in our operations. In short, the COVID-19 pandemic showed our nation that we need Industry 4.0 innovations to ensure our national security.

These issues have highlighted how robotics is the key to strengthening the U.S. industrial base. There is a significant opportunity to capitalize on robotics to keep workers safe, strengthen manufacturing, and lay the foundation for post-COVID economic recovery. We have already seen the robotics sector step up to catalyze solutions for disinfecting processes. Elsewhere, countries have widely adopted robotics in healthcare settings to limit human exposure to the virus. The Department of Commerce’s NIST recently funded an ARM Member project proposal to add a collaborative robot to the COVID-19 testing process.

The solutions outlined above are only the beginning. The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute is funded by the Department of Defense and works to secure U.S. manufacturing readiness through robotics innovations and workforce development. The need for national manufacturing readiness and resiliency is critical not only for future pandemics, but for ensuring global competitiveness post-pandemic.

Through collaboration with our 250+ member organizations spanning industry, government, and academia and in partnership with the Department of Defense, the ARM Institute will continue to address areas of need in manufacturing and catalyze solutions. Our unique organizational structure allows us to bring together the greatest innovators from across all industries and ensure that our approach is comprehensive – while we enable new technology, we also address the manufacturing workforce needs.

One area that will need greater investment is in Reconfigurable, Agile, and Flexible Robotic Workcells. Technology focused in this area will allow manufacturers to adapt more easily. Robotic systems that are designed for a single purpose pose challenges for deployment in activities beyond their original design intent. This poses a great risk when considering the diverse and rapidly changing range of tasks demanded by manufacturers, as we saw with PPE production. There is a strong need for developing more versatile robotic systems that can be easily repurposed. To date, the ARM Institute has funded 46 projects in this area.

Equally important will be investment in the area of Human-Robot Interaction, ensuring that robotic applications are collaborative when possible and safe to operate near and around humans. By augmenting the workforce with robotic solutions, we can allow humans to operate more safely on the manufacturing floor post-pandemic. Additionally, by allowing robots to take on dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs, we can create new opportunities for humans in areas where engagement, safety, and overall workplace enjoyment is higher.

As the innovations become more widely adopted, we will also need to have a prepared workforce ready to take on new roles. Manufacturing is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy with the National Association of Manufacturers estimating that the manufacturing industry supports 17.6 Million U.S. jobs. However, a significant skills gap threatens our nation’s leadership in manufacturing with Deloitte estimating that 2.4 Million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled due to the skills gap. A large part of this skills gap comes from a workforce that isn’t prepared to work with robotics.

While the field of robotics isn’t as new as some might imagine (the first manufacturing robot is credited as the Unimate and was patented in 1954), the field still lacks consistency and standardization for robotics roles in manufacturing. The ARM Institute, with significant input from industry, government, and academia, has created three standard robotics in manufacturing roles: Robotics Technician, Robotics Specialist, and Robotics Integrator. In addition to this effort to create standardization and complementary duties across these roles, the ARM Institute plans to launch a public website that is national resource for vetted training for careers in robotics for manufacturing. These efforts to offer a national resource for training and provide standardization in job descriptions will help to offer clear career pathways for workers and help employers upskill their workforce.

Much like how the pandemic has created a new normal and new considerations for activities that we once found routine, the pandemic will also change how we view manufacturing and how we build our operations. Companies that were once unwilling to take risks will find themselves needing to adopt technology in order to compete, keep workers safe, and build flexible operations. But companies don’t have to do this in a silo. These changes are best achieved through collaboration between industry, government, and academia.