The Long Arm of Robotics

The Seattle region's automation industry reaches into every imaginable sector -- from airplanes to apple picking.
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Robots in the workplace are nothing new.

General Motors deployed what’s considered to be the first mechanical-arm robot on an assembly line in 1959. Painting and welding robots are now standard features of auto assembly plants, and conjecture on a workerless, robot-filled workplace has been the stuff of think pieces and cartoons for decades.

But what’s going on now is remarkable for the breadth and depth of investment in and deployment of robots. “We’re the busiest we’ve ever been,” says Jeff LaSorella, president of Finishing Consultants Inc., an Everett company that installs automated systems for painting everything from airplane parts to residential doors and cabinetry.

“It is a hotbed of activity,” agrees Scott Dean, CEO of MTM Robotics, a Mukilteo manufacturer of portable automation systems for the aerospace industry. “We’re getting contacted every day to come up with an automated solution to somebody’s problem.”

And many of those queries are coming from outside the aircraft industry. Industrial robots have joined drones and self-driving vehicles, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things as transformative technologies with huge growth potential — and a certain degree of hype. What differentiates industrial robotics from the others is that it’s a proven and improving technology, not an emerging one.

Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics, shies away from using the term “wave” to describe the current interest in robotics, because waves “come and go.” Brady describes robotics as “more of a newly discovered ocean that the industry is diving into head first.”

Washington state is one of the more noteworthy diving boards from which companies are launching themselves into that ocean. Some of those taking the plunge are the biggest names in corporate America — Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft. But they’re joined by dozens of small firms that build robotic systems or the technology that makes them possible or that helps businesses use them. It involves industries one would expect to be involved in robotics, like aircraft assembly and logistics, and some that would seem far removed from highly mechanized and automated industries, like agriculture.

“Manufacturing an aircraft is just an open playground for bringing automation in,” says MTM’s Dean, and Boeing’s presence here has spurred the creation of an entire ecosystem of robotics companies. MTM, for example, makes a robotic system with a track that attaches to an aircraft fuselage with vacuum pressure; a carriage with tools attached for drilling, inspection, sealing, riveting or fastening rides that track with a rack-and-pinion drive. The system is flexible enough to handle complex curves and angles and smart enough to orient itself to where it’s supposed to operate.

Nearby are local companies that sell globally, such as Electroimpact, which makes giant automated systems for drilling and riveting fuselages, and the local outposts of international robotics aerospace assembly companies like MTorres (formerly Pacifica Engineering) in Bothell and Fives Machining Systems (formerly Lund Engineering) in Seattle.

Boeing introduced robots to its 777 assembly with a fuselage automated upright build system, which uses automated, guided robots to install 60,000 fasteners that previously had been placed manually. For the 777X, Boeing erected a huge plant in Everett to build wing structures made of carbon-fiber composite materials and fabricated by machines capable of laying up to 20 lanes of 1½-inch-wide carbon-fiber tape at the same time.

As the operator of giant distribution warehouses, Amazon has a key interest in automation systems as a tool for getting packages quickly and efficiently to customers, so it uses an estimated 80,000 robotic drive units to fetch and move merchandise at its fulfillment centers.

"Drilling and riveting on aircraft are very tough on operators’ hands, arms and shoulders. It’s not necessarily a financial business case that drives the solution but a human one.” - Scott Dean, above, CEO of MTM Robotics, a Mukilteo manufacturer of portable automation systems for the aerospace industry.

Amazon is far from a passive consumer of robotic systems. In 2012, it paid $775 million for Kiva Systems Inc., a specialist in materials handling based in North Reading, Massachusetts. That operation is now known as Amazon Robotics, which has its own website. It remains headquartered in Massachusetts, which Amazon describes as the “epicenter of robotic innovation.”

To further spur robotics innovation, Amazon for the past three years has sponsored a global competition for teams from colleges and research institutions to demonstrate their ideas for tackling issues like object recognition and error detection.

Microsoft also has its eye on robotics. It partnered with the Chinese-owned German robot manufacturer Kuka on systems like the one used at a Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, to connect and operate 259 assembly-line robots with a Windows-based monitoring, control and data-collection-and-processing network. The two companies teamed up two years ago at the giant Hannover Messe trade show on a display of a robotic system designed to work safely around humans.

Bellevue-based Paccar Inc., already a user of robots for truck assembly, announced it will add more robotic cab-assembly equipment to increase production capacity at its Peterbilt plant in Texas. It plans to do the same for its Kenworth plant in Ohio. The company uses robots for tasks including welding fuel tanks and painting cabs and chassis, as well as for automatic guided vehicles to move chassis along the assembly line.

One of the state’s biggest users of robots is found not in one of Western Washington’s industrial parks but in Yakima. In its giant sorting and packing house, Washington Fruit & Produce Company uses robotic systems to inspect fruit for external and internal defects, grade fruit for size and color and stack boxes for shipping.

Washington is also wired into the research and development side of robotics development. At the University of Washington, several research groups, such as the UW Robotics and State Estimation Lab, tackle a host of issues and challenges, from machine learning to object recognition and how robots and humans interact with one another. Washington State University has its Modeling, Motion and Medical Robotics Laboratory, while Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has multiple research projects on robotic systems. The UW and PNNL are both participants in the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Innovation Hub, a Pittsburgh-based R&D consortium.

All that activity provides some assurance that the United States won’t be left behind in the global pursuit of robotics. Companies like Electroimpact and MTM sell machines and entire systems to aircraft manufacturers around the world. MTM has grown from 25 employees two years ago to 50 today, and a big reason for this increase is that 60 percent of its revenue comes from the export market.

“Design it here, build it here, sell it throughout the world,” Dean says.

But why is there such a global robotic fervor now, given that the technology is hardly new?

The consensus opinion is that robots are just better than they were. “The software and the versatility of the robots in today’s world are much more enhanced than what they were five, 10, 15, 20 years ago,” says Paccar CEO Ron Armstrong.

Robots are capable of far more than simple pick-and-place functions or welding or painting the same spot on a uniform line of car bodies. They often don’t look like the one-armed mechanical devices people have come to associate with the term.

“The industry is creating more data, information and technology at a faster rate than ever before, which increases accessibility and adoption across the board,”  Amazon’s Brady says. “We now have faster computing capabilities, better sensing technology and increased connectivity that help lower the barrier to entry.”

“Robots have gotten a lot better in terms of payload and their ability to be accurate,” says Phil Freeman, Boeing Research & Technology senior technical fellow in South Carolina. They’re also better at working around humans. “If you can get to where people and robots can share the space with each other safely, that opens up a lot of opportunities in factories that didn’t exist before.”

Humans and robots have an uneasy relationship. Dire predictions of robots (and technological cousins like driverless trucks) wiping out thousands of jobs abound. When it comes to inspecting fruit, a robotic system “does a better job than having people manually do the same thing,” says Rick Plath, president of Washington Fruit & Produce.

Those in the industry say robots are doing humans a favor. “We really are focused on finding applications that are the dull, dirty, dangerous jobs” that robots are good at, Boeing’s Freeman explains. “We’re not just going after anything where we can reduce touch labor.” By letting machines handle the repetitive tasks, humans are freed up for “what people are good at — dexterous manipulation, critical thinking, decision making.” People tend to tune out of repetitive jobs, he adds; challenging them with mental tasks such as spotting and fixing mistakes keeps them engaged.

“There’s a lot of ergonomic benefit” to using robots, MTM’s Dean adds. “Drilling and riveting on aircraft are very tough on operators’ hands, arms and shoulders. It’s not necessarily a financial business case that drives the solution but a human one.”

Painting, whether it’s an airplane or a cabinet door, is not a pleasant job, says Finishing Consultants’ LaSorella. “You’ve got to deal with solvents, paint, all that sticky stuff and smells,” and painting in the same pattern day after day can lead to repetitive-stress injuries and workers’ compensation claims. “The robot’s not going to complain,” he points out.

But there are some labor-saving advantages to robots. “What I’ve heard from customers is, ‘I can’t afford it if Joe the painter doesn’t show up for work on Monday morning or he calls in sick on Tuesday because I’ve got to get this production out,” LaSorella says. “It’s the last thing that happens to this door that we’ve invested all this money and all this woodworking machinery and labor in, and everything stops if he’s not here.”

An Amazon Robotics robot — the orange box on the floor — transports a portable storage unit at an Amazon fulfillment center so a stock picker can retrieve a product. The robots are designed to travel across Amazon’s enormous warehouses and slide under the storage units, lifting lift them off the ground to move them as needed. 

There are still tasks requiring human dexterity to handle, such as installing wiring harnesses or insulation blankets on an airplane. “It’s really hard to beat the human hand,” Freeman says. The human brain is hard to duplicate, too. “Artificial intelligence is getting better but it doesn’t perform anywhere near the level people perform at.”

Not that researchers won’t keep trying. “We’re still pushing the limits of what robots are capable of,” Freeman says. As more sophisticated robotic operating systems are developed — an industrywide project in which Boeing is involved — a robot could be presented with a solid model of a part to be produced, and the robot figures out the steps necessary to get there “without someone having to go through and teach explicitly everything the robot has to do.”

Robots may also tackle some of those jobs the human hand is currently better equipped to do. A California company is looking to build a robotic apple-picking machine. Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, says interest in such machines is driven by long-term concerns about labor availability, but widespread adoption won’t happen until the machines prove themselves, not just in knowing which apples to pick and doing so without damaging them but in handling the heat, dirt, dust and bumpy ground of an orchard. 

Gempler cites one other barrier. “What will be required to adopt mechanization of the orchard is a lot of money,” he notes, and that’s not just in the machines themselves but in reconfiguring orchards to accommodate them.

Robots are more capable for less money, but they’re not cheap, and the technology keeps changing. “We keep upgrading,” says Plath of Washington Fruit. “Some last for three years, some for seven. It’s not just a ‘purchase the technology and you’re set’ [situation]. It’s evolving all the time.” Even though labor savings are generated by the capital investment, the need for constant upgrades means “you hate to buy anything.”

Robots will eliminate a lot of jobs, but they’ll create some, too. Growth potential in the business of building, installing, operating, maintaining and repairing robotic systems — falling under the broader term of mechatronics — has prompted Washington’s community and technical colleges to set up training programs to steer students toward careers in the field. The Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Manufacturing in Everett won a $3.9 million federal grant to support mechatronics programs at five schools.

How fast more robots show up in the workplace, creating demand for those trained in mechatronics, will depend on the sector, Dean says, and their tolerance for the risk of new production methods balanced with potential gains in cost savings and productivity.

 “You’re going to see implementation everywhere in industry, but it’s not going to be the pie-in-the-sky, self-thinking, problem-solving-type robots we all dream of or see in the movies. It’s going to take a long time to replace the processing power of the human brain.”

Dean figures to be in thick of what happens. And the region, he says, will be “a strong contributor to the industry.” 

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