Are Robotics on the Verge of a Major Technological Expansion?

The term robotics may conjure up science fiction versions of futuristic TV series or movies of a humanoid creature replacing people in a wide variety of functions and a vast array of services that could be programmed by today’s advanced computerized technology. But realistic utilization is on its way to trumping fiction.

This concept was originally conceived by a brilliant engineer, Joe Engelberger, with whom I shared a senior vice presidency in the now defunct Condec Corporation, headquartered in Old Greenwich, CT. Both my valve group, Conval, and Joe’s Consolidated Controls, were major components of Condec. Although the businesses were totally unrelated, Engelberger and I become collegial. as well as personal friends, which awakened my interest in his embryonic innovation, Industrial Robotics.

In the mid 1970′s, as it appeared the use of robotic machines designated for such huge assembly line manufacturing as automotive, aircraft, and heavy machinery started to be used in the U.S. and Japan, Condec, with sales of about $250 million annually, half of which were from my executive directed valve companies, found that the cash flow needed to further develop this 21st century concept could not be generated internally. A partnership with Japan’s Kawasaki heavy industries gained a foothold in Japan, where it is flourishing today, but Condec’s heavy debt incurred in research and development, led to the robotic division’s sale to Westinghouse, then competing with much larger General Electric.

Even that divestiture was not enough to save Condec, which was subsequently acquired by a Chicago investor, Farley Industries. Further inhibiting robotic industrial growth in the U.S., other than emerging automotive assembly line production, was the “breakthrough” of imports that, due to their low costs, rocked their American counterparts unmercifully. This caused the initial mass transfer of sizable U.S. industry segments to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and subsequently to the emerging Chinese giant.

According to a special client newsletter disseminated by the highly acclaimed “Kiplinger Letter,” this may be about to change. Due to the unprecedented evolution of computerized communications technology, the depth and breadth of robotic usage may be about to multiply geometrically. Worldwide sales figures indicate that 2012 shipments of robotic devices practically doubled to 180,000 industrial robots from less than 100,000 in 2010. A rosy scenario envisions usage in the millions by 2020, with an unlimited expansion into household tasks, and intensifying current industrial usage, such as metal, electronics, rubber usage and plastics. Abetting this growth are better microprocessors for cost-cutting and insuring speed; new lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and electric polymers; and the use of such current technologies as I-Pads and elastic polymers.

This explosion of anticipated automation, however, is a double-edged sword:

1) It will electrify productivity, which could lure foreign based U.S. industries back into the U.S., if projections and estimates evolve into reality. Such new cost advantages would bring home a sizable segment of transplanted U.S. production centers, piling sizable cost advantages on top of other insourcing advantages.

2) But it would likely result in an appreciable reduction in hands-on labor requirements in a broad range of industrial, commercial, and retail applications. This could further inflate an already unacceptable U.S. unemployment level.

Whatever this economic mini-revolution provides as far as revival of the U.S.’s huge manufacturing sector, it will have to be paralleled by aggressive technical retraining programs that have been conspicuous by their absence up to this point.

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