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Robotics Week: The New, Small Manufacturing is About Production Robotics

Over the last several months, I have spoken to several groups about robotics in small manufacturing. Everyone gets that robots, and specifically the digital-fabricating robots that are particularly interesting to me, are machines that offer useful automation — automation in the sense of helping a producer make a lot of something. But an emphasis on automation can make it easy to miss the more powerful advantages that robotic assistance offers small manufacturing. These are the advantages that will be key to re-establishing the competitiveness of local, low- and medium-volume production.

Today is the start of National Robotics Week.

And, that makes it a great time for articulating those advantages. Today, we have: increasingly affordable and versatile subtractive digital fab tools such as CNC mills, routers, laser and plasma cutters; increasingly capable additive digital fab tools like 3d printers and assembly robots, along with robotic material handlers. Of course, these robotic tools offer automation in the sense of more throughput. Yet, the bigger boost is that these robotic tools make it possible for small shops to produce in ways they could not do before — an empowerment that has been called “the democratization of manufacturing”.

The essence of the advantage is that robots, call them robotic assistants or just robotic assistance, make it possible for a small shop to cut and machine, to 3D-print, or to assemble a complex component or product that previously would have required far too much time and labor to allow small producers to be competitive; and, because of the precision or complexity required, would have been impossible for a modestly capitalized operation to produce. Robotic digital fabrication equipment allows producing parts or components that are precise and intricate in nature — yet with digital fab, additional complexity adds little or no cost. With digital fab, these savings hold even at very low volumes. All of which means that items produced in small runs can be priced competitively. In earlier essays here, I’ve explored the specifics of robotic advantages for small manufacturers and offered some specific examples — including how we do it in our own shop.

Efficient digital-fab machining of plastic and aluminum components at competitive costs.

Yes, large producers can leverage robotics too. But, large centralized, highly capitalized production has always had that capability. New robotic advantages disproportionately favor small producers by enhancing the practicality and efficiency of small-run production with modest startup investment. Energized and entrepreneurial small producers can further advantage robotics to ensure fast turns and rapid iteration cycles, simply by being agile.

Massive centralized operations will always be at an advantage for commoditized, high-volume consumer products. That still leaves a lot of market and product development opportunity for smaller producers leveraging robotics.

It’s less about replacing people with robots and more about us making successful use of production robotics …

National Robotics Week is primarily about education. It is an opportunity to stress the powerful enabling features of the technologies that can help drive new markets and products. We’ve heard a lot about robots taking jobs. But along with automating the repetitive work at which robots are good, the production opportunities for small and medium manufacturing will be based on making the best use of human-robot synergies in production in order to optimize cost competitiveness. In particular, this means evolving rapid design-iteration-evolution that will make quick-response local production, design-make, specifically competitive. Production robotics used in this manner is likely to result in new types of jobs and employment, jobs that are challenging, fulfilling, and hands on — not replacing all the production-line jobs lost to offshoring and automation, but still offering jobs in production that are attractive and offer compelling lifestyle options for for those who enjoy creative engagement. It won’t be oppressive factories or repetitive assembly, but production robotics makes new kinds of careers possible for those who like to think creatively about the challenges of making stuff.

We’re all for supporting the emphasis of National Robotics Week on STEM education of all types and at all levels. It’s about being ready … and it’s about recognizing the opportunities.

Suggested Read: A more extended argument for why digital fab brings more opportunity to small and medium size manufacturers than to large-volume, centralized production can be found in: Complexity Comes Free: The Manufacturing Paradigm Shift Powered by Digital Fabrication and in other essays in this series.

And a National Robotics Week Shout-out to: The Team 900 Zebracorns FIRST Robotics … our Durham based squad practicing digital fabrication and doing some amazing work. Read About the Team

Ted writes about the future of small-shop manufacturing and new fabrication technologies. Ted founded ShopBotTools (CNC digital fab equipment), Handibot(smart power tools), and with Bill Young, started the open, small-shop, fabrication match-up & resource, 100kGarages.

Complex products built using of the continuum of digital fab techniques — from design, through prototyping, to digital production, and web assisted training and support — make small manufacturing realistically competitive.