The future of robotics and automation relies on workers with advanced skills

Robots have been working on manufacturing floors for more than half a century now, making industrial processes safer and more efficient. Robots free up their human co-workers to do more meaningful work by taking on repetitive tasks and manufacturers’ dull, dirty and dangerous work.

Industrial automation is decades old, too, with manufacturing equipment programmed to deliver around-the-clock productivity to power manufacturing businesses worldwide — and, often, without much aid from humans.

Industry 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution (what many call Industry 4.0) changed the way robotics and automation technologies work. Improved productivity and performance are still a given. Now, these technologies reveal rich, real-time data, yielding engineering and operational insights that further strengthen the value of a work environment that includes humans and machines.

The critical difference between today’s robotics and automation versus those in years past is the connected technologies and capabilities. “We all know that computers are getting smaller and more powerful,” says Manish Kumar, a professor and graduate program director at the University of Cincinnati (UC). “But the way we can now monitor machines in a manufacturing environment, transferring vast amounts of data — whenever we want and to whoever we want, along with the information derived from the data — that’s what’s innovative.”

Mechanical engineering education

Kumar shares his excitement about robotics and automation with UC’s Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering (MEng) students. The master’s degree program, available on campus and also fully online, welcomes people from across the U.S. and globe. The online format is identical to the on-campus degree, with the same curriculum, instructors, and academic calendar.

Online MEng program students typically work in mechanical engineering and are interested in exploring the latest technologies and developing leadership skills. “Our student population is diverse,” Kumar says. “Some are fresh undergrads who are excited about the industry’s dependence on robotics and artificial intelligence. Others have experience in manufacturing and see, first-hand, how these technologies impact their workplace and want to learn more.”

Career opportunities for mechanical engineers

As the field of robotics and automation advances and grows, so does the career outlook for engineering professionals. “Robots in manufacturing make processes more efficient,” Kumar says. “And despite what people might fear about robots replacing workers, automation creates more jobs.”

Engineers are needed to create and design robots and robotic systems and design the machines and processes required to manufacture robots. What excites many in the industry, including Kumar, is that today’s industrial robots are significantly more advanced than their pick-and-place ancestors. “These machines are groundbreakers,” Kumar says. “Companies like Amazon use autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs) and robotics and automation principles to improve the functioning of their warehouses, moving and transporting items and even delivering packages to customers who pick up goods on-site.”

Beyond the warehouse use case, engineers design unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones for various industries, including government and transportation, as well as to air-drop packages and other goods directly on the doorsteps of consumers and businesses. “The logistics of these autonomous technologies will revolutionize the field of robotics even more,” Kumar says.

More robots, more jobs for humans

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, engineering industry employment is projected to grow 3% from 2019 to 2029, with almost 75,000 new jobs. Some of this job growth is expected to be in the area of robotics.

The International Federation of Robotics estimated that, at the end of 2019, there were 2.7 million robots at work worldwide, with more than three-quarters of them in manufacturing and, predominantly, in the automotive and electronics sectors.

Today, the U.S. ranks seventh globally behind South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Denmark in “robot density” — that is, the number of robots per 10,000 workers — at 189 robots. (The worldwide average, according to World Robot Statistics, is 74 robots per 10,000.)

Wanted: engineering problem-solvers

Kumar says the manufacturing industry needs more engineering problem-solvers who can spot a technical issue and have the skills to fix it. Engineers are also called on to be visionary, seeing problems at a bigger scale and knowing the capabilities and technologies that drive more efficient processes and other business benefits and digitize and modernize a factory.

“The field of artificial intelligence will impact robotics, too,” Kumar says. He cites deep learning, a machine learning technique that teaches computers to do what comes naturally to humans, and its ability to improve computing capabilities. “Earlier robots used to be dumb in that you programmed them to do exactly what you wanted. Now, robots are more intelligent. They know how to work in a flexible environment and make their own decisions,” he says.

Old machines, new technology

Many machines that are still in use today in the manufacturing industry are dated with no sensors or computing capabilities. Kumar says that even though the machines may work correctly, they aren’t assimilated into the framework of a new, digitized factory. “These old machines still require manual processes and monitoring,” he says.

Manufacturing engineers are figuring out how to modernize old equipment to maintain their employers’ investments. Kumar shares an example of one way an old machine could be digitized. Instead of a worker standing by, a camera is positioned to read a machine’s temperature gauge, which reports the data back to a central monitoring system.

Future of robotics and automation

For people who work in the manufacturing areas of robotics and automation or hope to, meaningful employment opportunities and career advancement are only growing.

Kumar says that most U.S. manufacturers are redoubling their efforts to drive down operational costs to be more competitive against other countries and their capabilities. “Increased efficiency is the best way to cut costs,” he says. “Industry 4.0 technologies play a big role in U.S. manufacturing’s demand for more skilled workers.”

The automotive industry, in particular, uses robotic and automation technologies in the smart cars and autonomous vehicles it produces. Consumers enjoy their computer-equipped cars and the hands-off ease of staying in their lane and avoiding collisions, letting the car do the heavy lifting of driving safely. “More smart cars on the road mean more automotive industry opportunities for engineers,” Kumar says.

Diverse perspectives benefit the industry

Twenty years ago when Kumar graduated, he remembers there being far fewer robotics jobs and people interested in them. Now, he sees the younger engineers who are well-versed in programming and the latest technical tools come to the table with the needed skills to work in robotics and automation. “The more experienced engineers talk about real-world industry problems, and the younger ones are excited to consider the solutions,” Kumar says.

Kumar says this combination of experience, skills, and perspectives brings new energy and excitement to the field. The benefactor? Manufacturing, as it becomes more efficient and effective with data-driven systems that will power the industry’s future for decades to come.

The University of Cincinnati’s online Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering program incorporates essential technical skills in the areas of robotics, Big Data, sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning with professional skills that benefit a thriving business organization. For more information about the master’s degree program, read the program’s highlights or call 833-556-7600.


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