Over the last decade, collaborative robot technology has really gained traction in the automation market. Collaborative robots (cobots) can safely operate in close proximity to skilled human operators and are very easy to deploy and use, explains Joe Campbell of Universal Robots. Cobot programming is very simple in contrast to traditional robots so technicians can learn the fundamentals within a few hours through UR’s online academy. This accessibility conveys an added benefit—it helps combat the perception that manufacturing is dull, dirty, and dangerous, a misconception that steers younger technicians away from the field. And for incumbent workers, deploying cobots may mean moving a technician into a higher-value assignment.
So, what are the skills and knowledge that Campbell finds cobot technicians need? Campbell believes that:
You need a logical thinker, somebody who can solve problems and communicate well. But it’s more about those skills, in my opinion, than it is about hard programming knowledge and advanced mathematics. The whole industry, and Universal in particular, are building tools that really deliver that high technology part of the equation.
Dave Vasko, Director of Advanced Technologies at Rockwell Automation, describes how the increasing sophistication and capabilities of technologies coming to the manufacturing floor — technologies such as AI and the anticipated hybridization of large-scale robots with slower more independent cobots – are creating a lot of complexity for the technician. Going forward, he says, technicians will require different skills: the ability to configure networks and firewalls, to operate equipment remotely and collaboratively, and to troubleshoot the initial commissioning of equipment using digital twins with virtual reality, just to name a few. The approach to programming is changing as well, from writing code from scratch to starting with a library of possible code that can be applied and then debugged at the machine. This convergence of OT with IT means that it is, as Vasko notes, an exciting time to be in manufacturing:
We’ve been looking at some of these changes for a couple decades. The technology has really caught up with the changes that we thought would occur in manufacturing. So many manufacturers need employees. And I think these are incredibly fun jobs. They’re challenging jobs. They’re exciting careers.
Having been part of a company that distributes, rebuilds and services machine tools for nearly 40 years, Terry Iverson has seen many changes in CNC systems and in manufacturing overall. In this episode, he shares his perspectives on the factors driving CNC manufacturing today—global competitiveness, reshoring, and the need for younger employees; explains the unique characteristics of the four types of control systems; and describes the impact of emerging technologies. Where is industry going next with additive manufacturing and cobots? And what impact will this have on the education of entry-level technicians?
In today’s VUCA environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, explains Mark Maybury, Chief Technology Officer for Stanley Black & Decker, new technicians will need digital skills, “soft” skills, and the ability to be a lifelong learner. New, emerging jobs in a subset some call “gray collar,” require not just hands-on skills and mechanical knowledge but also digital skills in computing, data analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Technicians who learn new knowledge and skills the fastest and contribute the most and collaborate most effectively will be the ones who will succeed. In addition to being able to collaborate, they will need to be good at listening and very good at understanding and empathizing. A combination of “hard” skills and “soft” skills are the key things sought from job candidates in a constantly changing future workplace.
Before the Internet of Things, a technician would hook a digital multimeter up to a sensor, measure the output and evaluate whether equipment is running properly. Now there are smart sensors that have built-in diagnostics built. The technician’s job has expanded beyond taking rudimentary measurements and making a judgment call. Erik Fogleman from ConnStep, a consulting firm that works with Connecticut’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership, explains why today’s technicians need to learn how machines talk to each other and to the cloud and edge computing systems. They need to learn communications protocols that dictate how devices talk to each other, how to configure them, and how to troubleshoot them when they are not communicating. It’s not about more intelligent machines replacing technicians, but about machines providing technicians with more accurate “actionable intelligence.”