Robotics manufacturing shows Michigan’s automation leadership

North American robot unit orders are up 5.2% through the third quarter, compared to 2018 results. Photo courtesy Robotics Industries Association.

Experts say automation could reshape Michigan’s future workforce. Anticipating just such an occurrence, companies like Bosch are getting ready early.

North American robot unit orders are up 5.2% through the third quarter, compared to 2018 results. Photo courtesy Robotics Industries Association.

Anticipating growth in areas including digitalization and connectivity, automation, AI, cybersecurity and automated vehicles, among others, Bosch officials know the “principles of robotics apply in many of those areas and provide foundational elements in a number of businesses.

In order to bridge the skills gap that will likely exist, Kavita Phadke, director of learning and development for Bosch in North America, said companies need “a learning, growth and adaptability mindset across the organization.”

“This means we need to continue to further develop our culture of continuous learning and ensure we put the right, diverse learning resources into the hands of our workforce to allow them to gain knowledge quickly and in the moment of need,” Phadke said. “This also means we must focus on up-skilling programs and look at varying talent pipelines to help shape our future workforce. This will include unique approaches like apprenticeship programs and will require us to look at the skills that are needed in the future.”

Burgeoning industry
Meanwhile, engineering students at Northwestern Michigan College program autonomous rovers to inspect environments underwater and in the air in-real time.

The rovers aren’t the only things on the move in a burgeoning robotics industry that experts say is a key to Michigan’s economy.

“We’re always going to be trying to move to some new technology – and we just kind of have to be ready for it,” said Jason Slade, the director of technical academics at the Traverse City school.

Michigan is a leader in both manufacturing robots and in training employers to use them. Michigan leads the U.S. with more than 28,000 robots mostly engineered in state, 12% of the nation’s total, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report

The Robotic Industries Association (RIA), part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), today announced that North American robot unit orders are up 5.2% through the third quarter, compared to 2018 results. So far this year, North American companies have ordered 23,894 robotic units, valued at $1.3 billion.

Looking at third-quarter results only, North American companies ordered 7,446 robots, valued at $438 million. Both units ordered and revenue are up 1% in the quarter compared to 2018. 

Labor pool gap
The state’s aging population creates a gap in the skilled labor pool that automation could fill, said Joseph Cvengros, a vice president at FANUC America, a Rochester Hills company that recently opened a 461,000-square-foot robot factory. 

Bosch supports high school FIRST Robotics teams like this one at Northville High School as a means of fostering a potential future workforce. Photo courtesy Bosch

“The next generation isn’t as large so the way that companies are going to stay competitive is to have a balance of highly technical skilled people and automation,” he said. 

The change doesn’t eliminate humans from the process, said Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City. Elder also chairs the House labor caucus.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to reach a point in which we don’t need human beings to do manufacturing work,” Elder said. “Every once in a while people will say, ‘everything is going to go away,’ and that’s just not true. Will things be different? Undoubtedly.”

The rise in Michigan of industrial robots that are getting smaller and smarter isn’t surprising, said Drew Coleman, the director of foreign direct investment, growth and development for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC).

“We’ve had robots and automation since Henry Ford invented the assembly line,” Coleman said. “If you think of anything that you buy, it’s been touched by a robot likely at some point.”

Highly skilled job source
And experts say rather than looking at them as worker replacements, they should be viewed as the source of highly skilled jobs.

“We believe that this is opening up opportunities for Michigan in making us more competitive,” Cvengros said.

Bosch has taken a unique approach to opening up those opportunities, having made a vast investment into programs such as FIRST Robotics, sponsoring robotics teams at several local high schools.

By working with high school students who are passionate about robotics and engineering, Bosch “starts to create a pipeline of talent that can support our workforce needs in the future,” according to Phadke.

Knowing there’s an ever-increasing focus on connectivity and digitalization, Bosch is “committed to supporting programs that develop STEM skill sets” in future talent as early as possible. Many Bosch associates volunteer to support FIRST Robotics programs and serve as mentors to the students.

Bosch mentorships have seen students from robotics programs join the company as trainees and associate engineers.

“These students credit the Bosch associates who mentored them in high school and opened their eyes to the type of work that engineers do at Bosch,” Phadke said. “We are proud to support STEM initiatives like FIRST Robotics knowing that we can have an impact on shaping the future workforce in Michigan and across the country.”

Automation applications
Automation has applications as diverse as more precise surgeries and self-driving semi-trucks, said Otie McKinley, the MEDC’s media and communications manager.

It requires “a transition of skill sets from the current workforce in addition to the attraction of a new workforce,” McKinley said.

Elder said the recent deal between the United Auto Workers and General Motors allowed for specific automation technology training for workers.

“The corporations and the union understand that well-trained workers will continue to make products that are good enough to demand market share,” Elder said.

Community colleges are stepping up with training programs that work with local employers, said Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association. 

Training programs
Schools with FANUC-certified education programs partner with companies looking to hire graduates skilled in programming and using robots in the workplace, Cvengros said.   

Michigan Technological University partnered with Bay De Noc Community College in the Upper Peninsula to create a robotics and software development program in 2018. The  hands-on training program offers an easy path for transferring from the community college to the university, said Aleksandr Sergeyev, a Michigan Tech electrical engineering professor.

The “mechatronics” degree path encompasses electrical and mechanical engineering, robotics, automation and cybersecurity skills.

“I have seen that need in mechatronics for a long, long time,” Sergeyev said. “It doesn’t teach you the depth, it teaches the breadth.”

Sergeyev is a FANUC-certified professor who can train students for jobs in automation.

Professors with that certification can also train company professionals, ensuring that they both use the most updated software, Sergeyev said.

Internal surveys showed that80% of Michigan Tech undergraduates are interested in taking the additional time required to complete a mechatronics degree and 85% of companies want their workers to have it, Sergeyev said.  

Slade said a challenge is to prepare technology students for rapid changes.

“We have the hope that they’ll be able to use technology right now, but then adapt to new technology that comes online,” Slade said.

Evan Jones of Capital News Service contributed to this report.