Robots have been used in manufacturing for some time now. General Motors used its first robot in 1961, at a plant in Ewing, New Jersey, a location I routinely drive past on the way to my local library. (It’s now a level brownfield.) That robot weighed 4,000 pounds and was used to weld and move parts weighing as much as 500 pounds. The brute strength and speed that such robots brought to the workplace made them dangerous to work alongside. For the sake of safety, they were segregated in enclosures and other closed workspaces. They also have been used in conditions that are hostile to humans, such as the chambers where paint is sprayed on automobile bodies.
This practice is starting to change as a new generation of slower and more lightweight robots is being rolled out. For example, at the Spartanburg BMW plant, a Danish-made robot rolls a layer of protective foil over the electronics in car doors, a task that would cause repetitive-strain injury if done by humans. This is something that more old-fashioned robots could do, but that would mean isolating the car for a task that is better done alongside tasks that humans are doing. Over the next couple of years, the BMW plant’s engineers intend to configure robots to hand tools and parts to human workers.
One manufacturer has added fake eyes to the “head” of its robot so the robot can signal by a simulated facial expression where it is going to move next. Robots are also being designed to react to contact with humans. Most simply, this means the robot pulls back when it meets resistance. More sophisticated robots are designed so a human can move the robotic arm through a sequence of operations and the robot will then be able to repeat the sequence. This makes it unnecessary to pay a highly skilled programmer each time the robot needs to be configured perform a new task, and that means that robots can be used for small-batch manufacturing, where the tasks are constantly changing.
As robots gain improved capabilities, their presence in the workforce keeps growing. The International Federation of Robotics reports that 26,269 industrial robots were sold in North America in 2012, and the Federation projects that sales will exceed 31,000 by 2016.
So what skills will be necessary for human-robot teamwork? As robots become more reliable, mechanical skill will diminish in importance. And as robots gain sophisticated ways to receive instructions, the traditional collaborative skill of communication will become more important. Human workers will need to remember to keep their robotic teammates in the loop whenever the work routine changes, even slightly. With voice-activated robots, humans will need to learn the particular commands that the robot can respond to.
But the most important skill humans can bring to the collaboration is the uniquely human ability to be creative. The most successful human co-workers will be those who are constantly finding original ways to improve productivity and the quality of output. Of course, this is nothing new. It was true even before the industrial age. However, as robots become increasingly capable of mastering skills such as attention to detail, learning, and flexibility, the jobs where workers can collaborate with them—rather than be replaced by them—will be the jobs that require a high level of skill at creative problem solving.