In the coming years, many prognosticators predict that robots will take over our lives, and displace the last remaining American workers in the manufacturing sector. In economic terms, they predict that the shift will be similar to the American economy's transformation from agriculture to heavy industry.

Census data shows that more than 50% of the total population in America was employed in agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century. Rapid mechanization of agricultural processes and growth of manufacturing and services sectors has slashed that figure down to approximately 2% now. Now many predict similar profound changes will come from a new robotics revolution, as new robots displace the last human workers on the nation's factory floors.    

To quell the feelings of revolt these predictions may inspire, sellers of the newest breed of machines call theirs "collaborative robots," which they claim are friendly, cheap, accessible to humans, safe and adapdable to a variety of tasks. These new robots have already begun to change the dynamics of manufacturing. (See also: Will Your Job Get Eaten By Automation?)

Collaborative Robots  

The first industrial robot was introduced in 1961. But it and its peers could only boast tepid sales over the years, despite promises of vastly increased efficiency. Translating that efficiency onto a factory floor setting required a substantial investment, with prices starting at $100,000 just to buy the equipment. Then, there were other costs, such as worker training and maintenance. The size and power of the machines also made industrial robots dangerous, requiring elaborate safety precautions and still more worker training. As a result, industrial robots have had limited applications.  

According to a report by Robo-Stox, a global stock index of robotics companies, the use of industrial robots has mostly been confined to the automotive sector in developed economies and to “jobs that are dirty, dull, or dangerous in countries where wages are high.” Another study, this time by the International Federation for Robotics (IFR), found that there were only 200 robots per 10,000 workers in non-automotive industries, which it interpreted to indicate a largely untapped market for robots. 

Collaborative robots may fill that void. At costs between $20,000 and $25,000, collaborative robots are considerably cheaper than traditional industrial robots and require as little as 3-5 years for payback. They also have a relatively simple programming interface and can be used to work in more than one place on a factory assembly line. Unlike industrial robots, they are also safe, the backers claim, and can be programmed to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. 

Danish startup Universal Robots, which has customers like BMW and Volkswagen, was recently bought by Boston-based automation company Teradyne. Larger players, such as ABB, have also jumped into the market with robots like Yumi. The most glowing media reports claim that collaborative robots are a hit with small businesses and enterprises and, so far, haven't resulted in human layoffs.   

Other Use Cases For Collaborative Robots

The original use of robots made at Rethink Robotics was to automate manufacturing tasks at small businesses. Their flagship robot, called Baxter, received extensive media coverage. It is equipped software to help it follow directions and assist in manufacturing tasks. According to a story in the Boston magazine, Baxter has a lifespan of 65,000 hours. This works out to $4 per hour for manufacturing-related tasks, well below minimum wage. 

Baxter also has an interface that helps displays human emotions, such as surprise and bewilderment. In addition to this, it responds to touch. Those features have diversified the number of uses for Baxter, according to Rethink. 

Rodney Brooks, co-founder of Rethink Robotics, outlined some of these uses in his 2013 TED talk. Specifically, he referred to the demographic time bomb of an aging population in many developed countries today. In his talk, he illustrated the uses of robots in senior homes and healthcare. For example, robots could be used to get procure groceries or drive cars for older people. “I think robotics gives people a chance to have dignity as they get older by having control of the robotic solution,” he said. 

Another use for collaborative robots is manning security at critical facilities. In Mobile Robots: The Evolutionary Approach, a book published in 2007, increased threats from terrorists and natural disasters has created new personnel demands at facilities such as power plants, military bases, water plants and air fields. A chapter in the book illustrates the uses of the Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System, or MIDARS, to patrol such sites by mapping sensory characteristics and detecting unusual activity. (See also: Aging Population Feeds Global Healthcare Demand.)

The Bottom Line 

Factories will remain primary employers of collaborative robots in the near future. But the versatility of collaborative robots may make them appealing across a number of other sectors. For now, the people selling the technology are telling the story that our robotic overlords will collaborate with us, instead of ruling over us. 

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