A busload of visitors walked into one of the highly automated factories in the compound of FANUC Corp. at the foot of Mt. Fuji in Oshinomura, Yamanashi, Japan. It was the first day of a five-day Open House event in mid-April: By the end of the fifth day, over 4,000 customers will have made the trek here to see the company’s latest innovations in robots, CNCs and robomachines.
Across the 20 factories here, more than 2,700 robots are at work. This factory is arena-huge, but quiet and clean, with rows of untended machines going through their paces. In fact, the place is so automated that when a single worker is spotted, down a long row of machines with what looks like cleaning or lubricating equipment, his presence draws the attention of the entire crowd of visitors: they turn from the mechanized choreography going on about them to gawk and comment on this one gray-clad fellow, standing out like a cat crossing concrete.
It’s not just that he stands out, but that the fact of him makes the place seem even more completely, majestically machinelike in contrast. It’s like the single imperfection in a Japanese rock garden that somehow increases the beauty of the whole. The traditional argument for implementing robots and automation are reinforced by this sight: namely, that machines can replace human workers and do their jobs faster, more accurately, and with greater endurance.
So it’s rather counterintuitive to hear FANUC America President Rick Schneider argue—passionately—at this event that the reason U.S. companies should invest in his company’s products is to keep more, not less, of those imperfect human workers around.
“A number of customers are saying that with automation, they can be competitive globally,” Schneider explained. “These are customers that bring in robots and automation for manufacturing—and we see their companies thrive, grow, and do well. And actually, in a lot of cases they’re adding people.
“There’s that paradigm that people have that if you add automation, it’s taking jobs,” Schneider acknowledged. “But once you lose your factory [to cheaper offshore sites], then all of the jobs are gone. The general premise that I have is that manufacturing is going to go to the locations that have the best manufacturing technology and processes—lean manufacturing, robotics, automation.” All of which are available in the US.
Schneider has been a proponent of this version of the reshoring argument since at least 2004, when FANUC in the US began its collaborative “Save Your Factory” initiative. The technology on display at this year’s Open House in Oshinomura in many cases seems designed to bolster a view of robots as partners of workers rather than merely their replacements. The newest and perhaps best example: a prototype collaborative robot that can work next to or directly with a human worker without the need of safety fences.
The robot has a soft plastic covering—green, to differentiate it from the company’s regular (bright yellow) robots—over multiple force sensors: As was demonstrated at the event, it senses when it comes into contact with a person—instantly and safely coming to a complete stop. It also has a touch-sensitive hand guide that allows an operator to guide the robot’s tool to a new location. (I tried it myself, and it’s very cool. With the lightest of grips, I could move the end of the machine’s mighty arm to any location: it responded instantly, like a powerful but perfectly trained creature. It almost purred.)
The company’s message couldn’t be more clear: Robots can work alongside workers and keep them—and their jobs—safe.
Michael C. Anderson is senior Editor for Manufacturing Engineering Media. This article was re-published with permission from Manufacturing Engineering Media.