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Source: Aftermarket Business World

Numerous automotive component manufacturers are working in close collaboration with integrators and educators in harvesting STEM skills for youngsters and cultivating older students with detailed training programs that specifically address robotic systems.

Robots have evolved rapidly since the 1960s, having found a home on the factory floor and creating a fast-moving need for technicians who are able to program and maintain these devices.

According to the Automotive Robotics Market report from publisher Million Insights, the segment is annually expanding by 13.8 percent and is expected to reach a global value of $13.6 billion by 2025.

“This type of solution is long overdue for automotive production floor people,” says Jason Tsai, vice president of product development at FANUC America in Rochester Hills, Mich. The robot manufacturer has a partnership with integrator Cisco to create a Zero Downtime (ZDT) initiative for General Motors that encompasses more than 6,000 auto sector robots. “I believe the ability to support this type of functionality will soon be required by automotive customers everywhere.”

“Automation and robotics are key drivers of manufacturing competitiveness,” reports FANUC President & CEO Mike Cicco. “More companies are using automation to overcome inefficiencies, lower costs, increase productivity and gain market share.”

More than 650 schools offer FANUC’s robotic programming instruction along with 130-plus CNC training programs. Nearly 600 instructors are currently teaching students how to use the company’s systems in high schools, community colleges, technical schools and universities.

The skills gap is increasing, and manufacturers need a workforce with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills. To help narrow the skills gap, FANUC has created the CERT program, which teaches students how to use and program FANUC robots in a classroom environment.”

“If you can program a CNC machine, you can program a robot,” says General Manager Warren Reynolds at I-Cubed, a Canadian firm specializing in robotics with automotive applications, including body components, exhausts, electrical connectors, lighting and safety enhancements, axels, wheel hubs and covers.

Smarter, Cheaper, Easier
“Years ago, small to mid-size companies didn’t even entertain the idea of adding a robot to their manufacturing processes. Not only was the cost prohibitive but the learning curve was steep and the overall concept proved to be too intimidating for most,” according to Tracy Bithell of In-House Solutions, I-Cubed’s software provider.

“Not only are today’s robots smaller, more versatile and easier to program, but costs have come down to the point where even ‘mom and pop’ companies are looking at the next generation of technology,” says Bithell

Reynolds adds that, though prices range depending on the application, the cost of a robot can be less than a traditional piece of manufacturing equipment. “Things start to add up with the addition of secondary process tools, such as those required in machining, grinding or water jet cutting. Then there are expenses related to installation, labor, training and software,” he said. “But many of these are one-time costs that easily pay for themselves.”

Reynolds points out that “a robot can work precisely and consistently 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing a level of performance reliability that simply can’t be duplicated by human labor. Then there’s the reduction in wasted time and resources, lower labor costs and greater yield in terms of both quality and volume.”

Honeywell’s Intelligrated unit and Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center have recently rolled out a joint venture to apply artificial intelligence and robotics to further refine distribution center operations.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to staff supply chain operations fast enough to satisfy the growth in e-commerce,” says Pieter Krynauw, the Honeywell division’s president. “Developing advanced machine learning capabilities and applying it to critical distribution center applications is a key enabler for our customers.”

Like Peeling an Onion
With 24 locations throughout Ohio, The Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Collaborative (RAMTEC) is training students ranging from elementary schoolers to industry professionals, plus teachers who return to their local districts to spread the knowledge.

“It’s like peeling an onion,” explains robotics instructor Clay Hammock. “We can bring it down and present it to 5th graders who can start programming within a few minutes.”

“We always want to stay ahead of where manufacturing is going to ensure that when our students leave this facility they can use the equipment adapted by industry,” says RAMTEC coordinator Ritch Ramey.

RAMTEC’s overriding goal is to bridge a looming skills shortfall, estimated to surpass some 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2020. “In Ohio alone, there are 60,000 openings right now that we could help fill by getting high school students and workers retrained, both in the higher-skilled jobs, teaching them to program and operate robots and other machinery, while also helping facilitate the entry of more robots taking over repetitive, lower-skilled tasks,” says Ramey.

In West Chester, Ohio, the DENSO Robotics Sales, Application and Training Center supplies education for production operators, programmers and maintenance personnel. Covering robotic arms, controllers and applications, the company has similar locations in Long Beach, Calif., and Maryville, Tenn. In July the DENSO North America Foundation (DNAF) announced that it is donating nearly $1 million in grants to 25 colleges and universities to encourage STEM instruction that includes robotics training.

“DENSO’s primary business is manufacturing automotive parts, not robots,” notes robotics sales manager Peter Cavallo, yet the Japanese firm is the world’s largest manufacturer – and user – of small assembly robots, employing more than 18,000 of them. 

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