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Local companies cozy up to robots in tight labor market

Can collaborative robots work with humans?
Posted at 12:31 PM, May 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-16 20:32:27-04

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported the cost of the cobot at the Fairfield Skyline.

A Skyline restaurant in Fairfield has a new server that rolls through a 12-hour shift while treating customers to songs like "Happy Birthday" and the "Skyline Time" jingle.

While it isn't getting paid hourly, it costs about $1,000 a month to lease this collaborative robot, or cobot, according to California-based Bear Robotics.

“We (leased) it so that it can help us move food,” said Robin Kurlas, co-owner of the Skyline franchise on Hicks Boulevard. “We’re fast-casual and we get the food out quickly.”

Cobots are an emerging form of automation that's designed to work safely with humans to boost productivity. At Skyline, that means fetching cheese from the kitchen when the steam-table staff is busy making coneys. Or hauling food to the table so servers can spend more time with customers. Or keeping extra crackers and hot sauce within reach when a waitress delivers the order.

“I’m interested in automation if it can help us,” Kurlas said. “I know it’s novel and it’s fun. But it’s also functional.”

And it’s an example of how robots are filling more jobs than ever before, a trend that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a shrinking pool of willing workers and new innovations that reduced the cost of automation for smaller companies.

Maddy James serves customers at the first Skyline restaurant to use a collaborative robot server.

“More industries recognized that robotics could help reverse productivity declines and fill repetitive jobs human workers don’t want,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, a Michigan-based trade group. “It’s no longer a choice whether to deploy robots and automation. It’s now an absolute imperative.”

Nearly 500,000 Ohio jobs are threatened by automation, according to a January report from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. It identified 41 occupations with “high exposure” to robots, computerization of job tasks, machine learning and driverless cars.

The International Federation of Robotics estimates there are 3 million robots in factories around the world, with 76% of those installations in China, Japan, USA, Korea and Japan. Nearly a third of all robots are in auto plants, while 25% are found in electronics factories.

But cobots are changing that dynamic, with innovations that open the door to new industries.

“Think about agriculture,” Burnstein said. “There are changes to immigration laws. There are certain crops like strawberries that if you don’t pick them in a three-day period they go bad. So, how do you do that if you have an uncertain labor force?”

Burnstein said a Pittsburgh company, Bloomfield Robotics, has a cobot that inspects grapevines to let wineries know whether grapes are stressed by drought or ripe for picking. Boston Dynamics has a construction robot named Spot that can scan a building as it rises to make sure dimensions are right and walls are plumb. And Miso Robotics is selling restaurant kitchen helpers named Flippy, Sippy and CookRight.

“The promise of collaborative robots is that they’re easier to use. You can get them up and running more quickly. You don’t need internal engineering resources. And that they’re safe,” Burnstein said.

The global tech advisory firm ABI Research predicts cobots will grow from 5% of the global robotics market to 29% in 2030. If that happens, cobots will be a nearly $12 billion industry in eight years.

Cobots already represent more than 10% of sales at MiQ, a California -based automation company that started in West Chester and employs 69 people there.

“It’s still something that people are getting used to,” said Marketing Director Mark Pirhala. “There’s a level of competency that has to exist as well. It requires some training, whereas traditional automation is basically plug and play.”

Auto parts manufacturer thyssenKrupp Bilstein has 30 cobots making shock absorbers at its factory in Hamilton, each machine named for a U.S. president. A 2019 promotional video by Universal Robots said the 10 cobots installed at that time were generating a return on the company’s investment within 14 months, while reducing the risk of workplace injury and improving quality control.

The Bilstein cobots are a big growth opportunity for students in the Mechatronics program at Butler Tech, said Instructor David Campbell, who has taught robotics for 26 years.

“We’re on a rolling agreement with Bilstein. Every year they bring us a new cobot,” Campbell said. “They task our students with programming this machine. And then when it’s ready to go on the production floor … they give us a new one.”

Mechatronics Instructor David Campbell, center, works with students at Butler Tech in Fairfield Township.

Campbell thinks he could place 100 students a year in local jobs with the robotics skills they’re learning in his program, which enables graduates to earn two-year associate degrees in Electrical Mechanical Engineering Technology from Sinclair Community College. This year’s graduating class has 27 students, 20 of whom are going to college while six are taking jobs in private industry.

“I have a job lined up at Procter & Gamble,” said Wade Valerius-Johnson, who completed the mechatronics program while ranking in the top 10% of his class at Monroe High School. “I’m probably going to be just on the line, learning how the machines work and then it’ll go from there.”

While he thought about going to college, Valerius-Johnson was intrigued by the chance to work at the Winton Hill Business Center, where P&G conducts research and development on paper brands like Bounty and Charmin.

“I don’t want to go off and get into a whole bunch of debt (for) something I might not use,” he said. “So, instead, I opted to go with a company who has tuition reimbursement, who can pay for it if I want to use a college degree to further my career.”

In the meantime, Skyline customers are voting to name the new cobot and Kurlas has ordered a second cobot for a store she and her husband, Dennis, are building in Springfield.

“We’re definitely getting a return on it. We haven’t looked at the hard numbers yet (but) we know we’re getting the food out faster,” she said.