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Will Your Next Coworker Be a Robot?

For decades, industrial workers and much of the media have been claiming that robots and automation are stealing their jobs. But in the case of Toyota, the opposite has been happening, with the iconic automaker bringing more humans into the mix, leveraging their creativity and problem-solving abilities to progressively optimize their manufacturing operations.

I, Robot
 I, Robot image from Wikipedia

Toyota has been a manufacturing operations pioneer for a long time. (Ever hear of lean manufacturing? It has its roots in the Toyota Production System.) So it probably shouldn't be a surprise to see one of the first manufacturers to embrace automation doing a bit of an about face as it seeks better ways for robots and humans to work together.

In the past three years, Toyota put about 100 human workers in charge of making car parts from scratch, Bloomberg reported. Toyota then tapped those workers to help reprogram assembly machines to make them as efficient as possible.

This could be a harbinger of things to come not just for automaking but other sectors including medtech that are progressively relying on automation to make their operations safer as well as more efficient and traceable.  

The way of the future, whether it be for the automotive industry or medical devices, is to ramp up collaboration between human and robots. Robots can take on ever more repetitive tasks that are mind-numbing for most people, while human workers can use their creativity to find the best ways to employ robotics, finding new ways to work with them.

The big hitch is that most robots have made poor collaborative partners in the past. Difficult to program and often dangerous to be around, many of them are enclosed in cages to keep human workers safe. In the past, adding a robot to a manufacturing line meant rethinking the manufacturing process. And once in place, such robots are generally difficult to reprogram or fine tune.

The robotics industry at large, and Rethink Robotics (Boston, MA) and Universal Robots (Odense, Denmark) in particular, are working to change how the manufacturing sector thinks about such matters. Both companies were founded by academics to make flexible and easily programmable robots that come at a low price--roughly between $20,000-35,000. In the past, advanced robotics had a price tag of upwards of several hundreds of thousands of dollars, as a recent report on robotics from PwC explains.

Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot also can help foster collaboration between human workers as it is easy to train through physical demonstration. The robot can be trained to pack or unpack boxes in a few minutes, says Carl Palme, product manager at the company. And the robot is getting easier to train all of the time. "Recently, we have also done things like add new macros to make Baxter even easier for people to train," Palme adds.

This ease of programming, when coupled with the fact that a robot can be purchased at roughly the cost of an entry-level factory worker's salary, could help fuel the trend or reshoring labor back to the United States or Mexico.

The safety of the new generation of collaborative robots is also a factor that bodes well for their adoption. Below is a video from Rethink Robotics demonstrating how safe the robot is. Not only is it not behind a cage, it is shown safely operating next to young children.

Universal Robots also boasts about its technology's safety features in this video:

In addition, small- to mid-sized companies are increasingly using robotics, which is changing the "very nature of industrial jobs," as the aforementioned PwC report points out. Thanks to robotics, the need for humans to do repetitive or dangerous manufacturing jobs is decreasing, while finding creative ways to best leverage and program robotic systems is increasing.  

The opportunities of workers to interact with industrial robots is increasing as they become more commonplace. Since the Great Recession ended, orders for such robots has roughly tripled, according to the PwC report. Robotic technology has even attracted the attention of venture capitalist (VC) investors. VCs invested $172 million in robotics last year. Compare that to 2012, when they only invested $69 million in the technology.  

Robotic technology is finder greater use in the life sciences industry, too. Consider that in 2005, life science companies in North America only accounted for 2% of orders for robotic systems. As of 2013, life science firms accounted for 6% of such orders. It still might not sound like much, but the use of robots in medical device manufacturing applications is quickly growing nonetheless.

A recent thread in the Medical Devices Group also anticipates that robotics will be increasingly used in hospital environments as well--in particular the operating room (OR). "Whereas it seems many try to put the robot in the place of the surgeon, there are other critical roles in an OR for which a robot may be better suited and easier to place," writes Todd Render, director, research at DePuy. "Think about the physicians assistant, the scrub tech, or even a circulating nurse -- the ones who need to take the surgeon's directions, are familiar with what's going on in and around one OR, who know the next steps in the procedure and can have instruments/devices prepped and ready (and could be linked via instrumentation to the surgical suite internet of things), who have access to EMR, can record the procedure and outcomes," he adds.

As many recent headlines have hailed: the robots are coming!

Are you ready for them?

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MD&M Chicago, October 15-16, 2014, and MD&M Minneapolis, October 29-30, 2014.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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