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How are we doing in the COVID-19 crisis and what might the future look like for robotics and advanced manufacturing?

Batu Sipka

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To start, an executive round table happened on Wednesday, September 9th, called “The State of the Global Robotics Industry” at RIA Robotics Week (Link here if you want to watch it). It was an interesting talk about the past couple of months, the current and most importantly the future of advanced manufacturing and robotics. I thought it was great to hear the opinions of some important names of the automation industry. 

(If you haven’t watched the round table, feel free to read the summary I wrote at the end of this post.)Credit: RIA & A3 Association

The round table started with analyzing how the last quarter went in terms of numbers. With all the stoppage in manufacturing, it seems like the automotive and aerospace industry saw the biggest hit. However the rebounding already has started and if the automotive projection numbers hold true, we will only be seeing a 15% decrease in year to year numbers. In Gibson’s territory, we don’t see a ton of automotive applications comparatively to Midwest or the rest of the country. It has been mentioned several times in the talk that medical industries are surging. The reason for this is that advanced manufacturing has been able to react so quickly to the changes. GM is a big example of this, a powerhouse in automotive, producing masks. It’s amazing what could be achieved if we work as a team.

I agree with the point that Robert Little, CEO of ATI brought up about re-shoring and producing locally. With the COVID crisis, the biggest supporters of most industries were local manufacturers. This brings up one of the biggest (maybe?) questions of the decade. With the unemployment rate going from 3.4% to astronomical numbers, how do we justify implementing robots and automation? It’s pretty simple, it has been proven that robotics and automation actually do add jobs for people, they are different jobs but it does add them. Only problem is the talent gap and finding that talent. Michael Cicco of FANUC summarized it great by giving two options: You either find the talent, or you up-skill your current workforce. Implementing advanced manufacturing techniques and getting high school, trade school or college students touching robots is going to take time, maybe up-skilling current workforce is a better option right at this second. 

Very good segway to integrators and/or value-add distributors. 

At Gibson Engineering, we make sure all of our team can assist with any technical problem or applications of customers and that’s how we show we are dedicated to the solution. This aligns with the thoughts of the group. The execs thought there is going to be a huge need for systems integrators in the next year and the upcoming 5 years. In my opinion, the point that has not been emphasized enough is the type of help needed from the systems integrators. A lot of small companies will try to automate themselves and are not going to have enough funds to afford systems integrators. The need from the systems integrators is going to shift from “here is WHAT you want” to “here is HOW you do it”. Education is going to be key for advanced manufacturing and companies who are trying to implement robotics.

A very interesting discussion that’s going to emerge soon in pretty much every industry out there is the work from home and how effective it is. I think a lot of engineers would agree with Robert Little of ATI, where he put it as his engineers have been “lighting up a fire” and being so much more productive than ever. I personally think working from home helped a lot of people to be more productive, made them realize that they have a life other than work since they now don't have the commuting time. I am sure the lunches with the family are amazing at home, however maybe a hybrid system in the future is the best way to move forward. Definitely a longer discussion..

To sum up, I found a couple of takeaways from this very informative discussion;

- COVID crisis hit the robotics and advanced manufacturing market hard seeing lows similar to Q1 in 2014

- We already have been seeing a rebound and the attendees seem to agree that the future is bright and next year is going to be busy

- With the acceleration of introducing automation in companies, finding talent is going to get harder. Upskilling the current workforce is something everyone should focus on.

- The need, especially next year for systems integrators, is going to be huge. It’s important to keep in mind that the function of these integrators is going to be different than before.

- The COVID Crisis did not create some of the needs in automation or advanced manufacturing, it accelerated it.

In terms of the last point, I think that’s the biggest silver lining to the current situation we are going through. The COVID Crisis hurt a lot of people, it is an absolutely horrible time. I think about the sales team doing web conferences or virtual sales calls before COVID times and it just doesn’t make sense when we can drive and talk to them face to face. As mentioned in the talk, COVID did not create the change, just accelerated it. We were going to make more virtual sales calls at some point in time, we just didn’t think it was this close. Or in another example, we were going to start producing more web content, host more webinars, and increase our focus on educating customers, we just didn’t think it was this close.

It is remarkable how the people reacted to the tough times and how advanced manufacturing reacted to help. I hope we keep this versatility and embrace change to bigger and better things together. As Gibson Engineering, we have already been trying our best to help customers navigate these difficult times. We try to embrace the change and do our best to collaborate with our customers, analyze their projects and applications together, and give them application support to the best of our abilities. 

If you are interested, the summary of the round table is below.

Summary:

The roundtable started with analyzing how the past quarter went. The notes were towards aerospace and automotive industries seeing a big hit, Milton Guerry from Schunk mentioned that the automotive industry probably has never seen such a stop before, but it is picking back up.

Michael Cicco from FANUC mentioned that all the industries closed down in April and May and that is reflecting on the numbers we see for Q2 of this year. He also mentioned that the non-automotive sectors are only %6 down and it is impressive how advanced automation reacted to this crisis. 

Milton Guerry from Schunk chimed in that the aerospace industry has seen a very big hit and will take time to get back on track, he added that the demand for general goods is stable. All the attendees agreed on how impressive the advanced manufacturing stepping in was. Milton Guerry also mentioned with the current projections on the automotive industry, we will see less than %15 drop Year to Year.

Robert Little, CEO of ATI gave a general overview of how the trade war has been affecting the US and we should trend towards reshoring. Cost of manufacturing is going up in China, so it only makes sense for advanced manufacturing and automation to reshore.

An important question got raised asking how the conversation about robotics is going considering the %3.4 unemployment rate in the beginning of the year is at astronomical numbers. 

Michael Cicco from FANUC answered the question by discussing finding talent. He mentioned there are 2 ways to find talent;

- Find people that understand advanced manufacturing

- Upskill the existing workforce

He also mentioned how important it is that from high school level to technical college to college, advanced manufacturing needs to be taught. Currently, half a million students are touching robotics or advanced manufacturing. He segwayed into the apprenticeship programs and all the attendees agreed this is an interesting idea that has been implemented in Germany for some time now. This ties in with upskilling the existing workforce.

Next topic was systems integrators. Robert Little from ATI started the discussion with a huge optimism for the next year. He believes that there is going to be a shortage of systems integrators because of the demand for automation. The whole group appreciated the optimism and agreed with Robert, it was mentioned that the smaller companies are going to try to automate now because of social distancing and working from home. Also, there is going to be a different need from systems integrators: Going from “we will do everything for you” to “let’s educate you”. 

The conversation turned into the idea of COVID crisis accelerating some of the needs. Klaus Koenig from KUKA had an interesting idea about digital factories and systems integrators being able to supply to manufacturers and customers with the right technology. This crisis made a lot of people more open to the idea of change and doing things differently now. 

A question was directed to Milton Guerry of Schunk asking if the robots, end of arm tooling and sensors are easier to implement now. He started answering by agreeing with the attendees where “the rising tide is going to lift all the boats” and open up a lot more companies into automation. He added that the connectivity, ease of use and implementation are crucial for automation and satisfying the needs to companies trying to automate. The systems integrators and vendors need to make sure they focus on quick successes and move on to the next project.

Klaus Koenig from KUKA mentioned a forgotten but crucial part of industrial automation, where he mentioned that the “robots behind fences” also need to be easy to use and implement not only collaborative robots. 

Towards the closing notes, Robert Little from ATI talked about how ATI engineers have “lit up a fire” working from home and how they have been more efficient and productive than ever. (I think a lot of us engineers will agree with that statement). He added that this is a great time to reinvest into your company with implementing a new CRM, ERP or other aspects of the company.

Milton Guerry from Schunk talked about how we are going to see automation go into places that we never thought it was going to go. He repeatedly mentioned that this was going to happen, COVID crisis just accelerated the process. He talked briefly about the skill gap and how we need to upskill the current workforce. Tagging along the optimistic approach that Robert Little from ATI started, he believes that we need to look at the potential, get excited however not forget to get ready for it and fix the problems we had before the crisis. 

The last topic was the future of automation and advanced manufacturing. The systems integrators are key, and in 5 years, there are going to be a lot of startups and new integrators that use cutting edge technology.

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Very interesting post Batu, thank you!

I will add that Gibson Engineering has seen an upswing in requests for custom training during this unprecedented time.  We are doing more training than ever and helping to educate both new and experienced employees.  I believe some of the increase has been because of the slow down, but I also think companies are seeing the value in the up-skilling that you mention.

As terrible as this has been, I'm left optimistic and even somewhat excited to see where this takes manufacturing in the coming months and years.

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