North American companies rush to add robots as demand surges

By Timothy Aeppel

(Reuters) – Companies in North America added a record number of robots in the first nine months of this year as they rushed to speed up assembly lines and struggled to add human workers.

Factories and other industrial users ordered 29,000 robots, 37% more than during the same period last year, valued at $1.48 billion, according to data compiled by the industry group the Association for Advancing Automation. That surpassed the previous peak set in the same time period in 2017, before the global pandemic upended economies.

The rush to add robots is part of a larger upswing in investment as companies seek to keep up with strong demand, which in some cases has contributed to shortages of key goods. At the same time, many firms have struggled to lure back workers displaced by the pandemic and view robots as an alternative to adding human muscle on their assembly lines.

“Businesses just can’t find the people they need – that’s why they’re racing to automate,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, known as A3.

Robots also continue to push into more corners of the economy. Auto companies have long bought most industrial robots. But in 2020, combined sales to other types of businesses surpassed the auto sector for the first time – and that trend continued this year. In the first nine months of the year, auto-related orders for robots grew 20% to 12,544 units, according to A3, while orders by non-automotive companies expanded 53% to 16,355.

“It’s not that automotive is slowing down – auto is up,” said Burnstein. But other sectors – from metals to food manufacturers – are growing even faster.

John Newman’s company is one of them. Athena Manufacturing, which does metal fabrication for other manufacturers in Austin, Texas, now has seven robots, including four installed this year. It bought its first machine in 2016. Newman said robots have helped Athena respond to a surge in demand, including a 50% jump in orders for parts used by semiconductor equipment manufacturers.

The machines also allowed Athena to move to an around-the-clock operation for the first time last year, he said. The company employs 250 but would have struggled, he said, to find workers to fill unpopular overnight shifts.

(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Pandemic’s labor reshuffle likely just starting for U.S. workers

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – If the coronavirus pandemic produced its own brand of anxiety for American workers trying to stay healthy while balancing job and family demands, the coming return to “normal” will pose a new set of challenges.

Like whether to first try to claw back all the free hours of labor donated to companies during the crisis, or shift to a “future-proof” occupation to insure against the next one, or figure out how to compete with the robots being deployed more widely because of the pandemic.

The workforce fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, in other words, may have only just begun.

Some industries are recovering faster than others, with the worst-hit sectors continuing to lag. Even though U.S. gross domestic product is near its pre-pandemic peak, jobs are rebounding more slowly, suggesting a potentially prolonged period of adaptation ahead for both workers and companies.

Payroll processor ADP set a baseline of sorts in a recent survey of more than 32,000 workers globally that showed just how unsettled the landscape is as the pandemic, at least in the major developed economies, reaches its endgame.

Over the past year, for example, workers often said they benefited from the flexibility of working from home and wanted it to continue. Companies and their employees have both reported improved productivity.

But it turns out some of that “flexibility” was consumed by a substantial increase in unpaid overtime, according to the ADP survey, which was conducted last fall. That means the higher productivity may be something of a mirage, not the outcome of better work-life balance but value donated to firms by workers worried about staying employed. Workers globally reported unpaid hours rose about 25%, from 7.2 to 9.3 per week. In the United States, it more than doubled from 4.1 to 9.

SPREAD OF AUTOMATION

People, and women in particular, “may be returning to a corporate landscape that expects more hours worked with less compensation,” said Nela Richardson, ADP’s chief economist. “That’s a post-COVID burden,” which could potentially frustrate hopes to reemploy the roughly 2 million U.S. women still absent from the labor force compared with February 2020.

More than three-fourths of workers globally said job insecurity had prompted them to work more during the week or on their days off, and take on new tasks including ones they were not comfortable performing. Richardson said those results mean companies and their workers will need to find a new post-pandemic relationship. Many workers took on new duties, for example, but often without a raise or extra training, an outcome particularly true for women.

The ADP survey found 15% of respondents said they were planning to shift occupations altogether to something more “future-proof,” a finding with implications for how companies and workers match up if large shares of people in, say, the restaurant sector decide they want to do something else.

The U.S. labor market’s weak performance in April – it added only about a quarter of the jobs that had been expected by a Reuters poll of economists – may be related at least in part to people’s reluctance to return to jobs they no longer see as rewarding or worth the health risk.

Defining what future-proof means, however, is challenging as the pandemic shifts consumer behavior in potentially permanent ways – the rush to online shopping and a preference for buying goods or participating largely in “distanced” activities – and automation spreads deeper into the service sector.

The Association for Advancing Automation last week reported a nearly 20% increase in purchases of industrial robots in the first three months of 2021 versus 2020, and most went to companies outside the auto sector where they are already prevalent. Orders by consumer companies rose 32%.

The pandemic has motivated hotels, restaurants and other consumer-facing, “high-touch” companies to build social distancing into their business models, possibly resulting in fewer employees than before.

In an analysis last week, Bank of America’s Ethan Harris and Jeseo Park argued that over time people will find jobs nevertheless, just as they have during past technological upheavals.

“While the COVID crisis has likely sped up structural changes in the labor market, these multi-decade changes are much slower than the dynamics of the business cycle,” wrote Harris, the bank’s head of global economics, and Park, a global and U.S. economist. “Over time the labor market will re-invent itself as it has done repeatedly across history.”

The interim can still be tough, and a slow adjustment may mean higher-than-expected unemployment while it plays out.

A recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study indicated the burden may fall hardest on the same workers most affected by the pandemic recession. If the dislocation is deep, the U.S. economy may have 3 million jobs fewer than it would otherwise by 2029, with many of the losses among waiters, retail clerks and other front-line service occupations.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

‘Digital twins’ can help create healthier cities after coronavirus

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The use of new technologies, such as virtual reality, by planners to help design more sustainable and healthier cities has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, urban experts said on Friday.

The respiratory disease, which has infected more than 5 million people worldwide, has already triggered the widespread use of robots, drones and artificial intelligence to track the virus and deliver services.

Now, planners and authorities are also turning to new technologies – including so-called Digital Twins of cities, or virtual three-dimensional replicas – to tackle future health crises, said Michael Jansen, chief executive of Cityzenith, a Chicago-based technology firm.

“A Digital Twin that could track the progress of the virus in real-time is the perfect platform for aggregating and distributing information at scale in a crisis,” he said.

“Digital Twins would also help assess and implement economic recovery plans for affected cities and urban regions,” he said.

Virtual Singapore, a digital twin of the island city, models and simulates climate change, infrastructure planning and public health studies, and can be used in crisis management, a spokesman at the Government Technology Agency said.

Modeling a city’s street grids, transport networks, buildings and population can help planners predict how design changes would affect them, said Fabian Dembski, a researcher at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS).

“Cities are complex. But if we can simulate factors such as climate, air quality, traffic flow and movement of people, then planning decisions can be more efficient, equitable, and inclusive,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But even these models and simulations do not capture human emotions, which play a big role in the success of urban design.”

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Dembski and other researchers built a digital twin of Herrenberg, a small city near Stuttgart in Germany.

They then invited residents to use an app to record their emotional responses to simulated scenarios in public spaces.

Using virtual reality, about 1,000 residents noted whether they felt comfortable, happy or unsafe in those areas.

“The idea was to see what they thought made a good public space, and use that data to support planners and architects to improve spaces where residents didn’t feel happy – like areas with heavy traffic or poor lighting,” Dembski said.

“As a planner, you don’t have that kind of information beforehand, and this is a democratic way to do it,” he said, adding that respondents included women, older people, migrants and people with disabilities who are otherwise excluded.

Digital Twins are particularly helpful for cities that are vulnerable to climate change, or are in environmentally fragile areas, as problems can be simulated to find solutions, he said.

Researchers are now modeling pandemics – which have affected urban planning decisions in the past – and also hope to simulate the effects of factors such as regional migration and gentrification on cities, Dembski said.

Technological tools such as Digital Twins “offer the possibility of testing a variety of different concepts,” said Thomas Sprissler, the mayor of Herrenberg.

“Considerably more innovative ideas can be tried out that might otherwise never be tested in reality,” he said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Despite robot efficiency, human skills still matter at work

Despite robot efficiency, human skills still matter at work
By Caroline Monahan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Artificial intelligence is approaching critical mass at the office, but humans are still likely to be necessary, according to a new study by executive development firm, Future Workplace, in partnership with Oracle.

Future Workplace found an 18% jump over last year in the number of workers who use AI in some facet of their jobs, representing more than half of those surveyed.

Reuters spoke with Dan Schawbel, the research director at Future Workplace and bestselling author of “Back to Human,” about the study’s key findings and the future of work.

Q: You found that 64% of people trust a robot more than their manager. What can robots do better than managers and what can managers do better than robots?

A: What managers can do better are soft skills: understanding employees’ feelings, coaching employees, creating a work culture – things that are hard to measure, but affect someone’s workday.

The things robots can do better are hard skills: providing unbiased information, maintaining work schedules, problem solving and maintaining a budget.

Q: Is AI advancing to take over soft skills?

A: Right now, we’re not seeing that. I think the future of work is that human resources is going to be managing the human workforce, whereas information technology is going to be managing the robot workforce. There is no doubt that humans and robots will be working side by side.

Q: Are we properly preparing the next generation to work alongside AI?

A: I think technology is making people more antisocial as they grow up because they’re getting it earlier. Yet the demand right now is for a lot of hard skills that are going to be automated. So eventually, when the hard skills are automated and the soft skills are more in demand, the next generation is in big trouble.

Q: Which countries are using AI the most?

A: India and China, and then Singapore. The countries that are gaining more power and prominence in the world are using AI at work.

Q: If AI does all the easy tasks, will managers be mentally drained with only difficult tasks left to do?

A: I think it’s very possible. I always do tasks that require the most thought in the beginning of my day. After 5 or 6 o’clock, I’m exhausted mentally. But if administrative tasks are automated, potentially, the work day becomes consolidated.

That would free us to do more personal things. We have to see if our workday gets shorter if AI eliminates those tasks. If it doesn’t, the burnout culture will increase dramatically.

Q: Seventy percent of your survey respondents were concerned about AI collecting data on them at work. Is that concern legitimate?

A: Yes. You’re seeing more and more technology vendors enabling companies to monitor employees’ use of their computers.

If we collect data on employees in the workplace and make the employees suffer consequences for not being focused for eight hours a day, that’s going to be a huge problem. No one can focus for that long. It’s going to accelerate our burnout epidemic.

Q: How is AI changing hiring practices?

A: One example is Unilever. The first half of their entry-level recruiting process is really AI-centric. You do a video interview and the AI collects data on you and matches it against successful employees. That lowers the pool of candidates. Then candidates spend a day at Unilever doing interviews, and a percentage get a job offer. That’s machines and humans working side-by-side.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bernadette Baum)

Robots to install telescopes to peer into cosmos from the moon

University of Colorado Boulder director of NASA/NLSI Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research Jack Burns points out locations on a lunar globe at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

By Joey Roulette

BOULDER, Colo. (Reuters) – As the United States races to put humans back on the moon for the first time in 50 years, a NASA-funded lab in Colorado aims to send robots there to deploy telescopes that will look far into our galaxy, remotely operated by orbiting astronauts.

The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon, are among a plethora of projects underway by the U.S. space agency, private companies and other nations that will transform the moonscape in the coming decade.

“This is not your grandfather’s Apollo program that we’re looking at,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, which is working on the telescope project.

“This is really a very different kind of program and very importantly it’s going to involve machines and humans working together,” Burns said in an interview at his lab on the Boulder campus.

Sometime in the coming decade, Burns’ team will send a rover aboard a lunar lander spacecraft to the far side of the moon. The rover will rumble across the craggy and rough surface – featuring a mountain taller than any on earth – to set up a network of radio telescopes with little help from humans. 

Astronauts will be able to control the rover’s single robotic arm from an orbital lunar outpost called Gateway, which an international consortium of space agencies is building. The platform will provide access to and from the moon’s surface and serve as a refueling station for deep space missions.

The goal is to give astronauts control of the rover “in a quicker fashion and more like doing some sort of video game,” said Ben Mellinkoff, a graduate student at the university. His project is telerobotics, or using artificial intelligence to give users better control over robotic movements from afar.

“It has a lot of potential, especially applied toward space exploration,” he says.

The rover, being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will plant the shoebox-sized telescopes on the moon’s regolith – the dust, soil and broken rock that covers its surface. Unfettered by the noisy radio interference and light that hinders Earth-bound space observations, the telescopes will peer into the cosmic void, looking back in time to the early formation of our solar system, Burns says.

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team's findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team’s findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

ROBOT PROTOTYPE

Working out of a small lab on the Boulder campus, Mellinkoff and two fellow graduate students have built a prototype of the robot named Armstrong (named for the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong). It is made from computer parts and powered by two modified portable cell phone chargers.

On a recent visit, Mellinkoff controlled the robotic arm using an X-box gaming controller, driving it toward an assortment of shoe-sized objects created with 3-D printing and resembling the radio telescopes to be planted on the moon.

“It’s really going to be a platform for us to start different science studies that we couldn’t do from the surface of Earth,” said Keith Tauscher, a physics graduate student.

Tauscher is working on a lunar orbiter designed to take advantage of the radio silence of the far side of the moon to discover when the first stars and black-holes formed during the formation of the universe. “The lab has dubbed this mission ‘the Dark Ages Polarimeter Pathfinder, or “DAPPER.’ ”

The work in Boulder and elsewhere underscores NASA’s plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s.

Vice President Mike Pence in March announced an accelerated timeline to put humans on the moon in 2024 “by any means necessary,” cutting the agency’s previous 2028 goal in half and putting researchers and companies into overdrive in the new space race.

The Americans are not alone in their latest moon quest, unlike a half-century ago. In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, with a long-term aim of building a base on the moon. India was scheduled to send a rover to the moon this month.

Another key difference between the Apollo program and the Artemis program, as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine named the new lunar initiative in May, is bringing in help from commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Those companies are working to slash the cost of rocket launches with a longer-term ambition of doing their own projects on the moon and eventually Mars.

“It’s a new way of operating in which the private sector is intimately entangled with NASA,” Burns said.

He predicts that in roughly 20 years, the moon will be dotted with inflatable hotels for deep-pocketed tourists and mining sites where robotic drills dig under the moon’s south pole for frozen water that can be synthesized into rocket fuel for missions back to Earth or further out to Mars.

 

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)

U.S. companies put record number of robots to work in 2018

FILE PHOTO: Attendees look over a demonstration of industrial robots at the Omron booth during the 2019 CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Steve Marcus/File Photo

(Reuters) – U.S. companies installed more robots last year than ever before, as cheaper and more flexible machines put them within reach of businesses of all sizes and in more corners of the economy beyond their traditional foothold in car plants.

Shipments hit 28,478, nearly 16 percent more than in 2017, according to data seen by Reuters that was set for release on Thursday by the Association for Advancing Automation, an industry group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Shipments increased in every sector the group tracks, except automotive, where carmakers cut back after finishing a major round of tooling up for new truck models.

Other sectors boomed. Shipments to food and consumer goods companies surged 60 percent compared to the year before. Shipments to semiconductor and electronics plants were up over 50 percent, while shipments to metal producers rose 13 percent.

Pressure to automate is growing as companies seek to cut labor costs in a tight job market. Many companies that are considering bringing work back from overseas in response to the Trump administration’s trade wars may find automation the best way to stay competitive, even with higher-cost U.S. workers.

Bob Doyle, vice president of the Association for Advancing Automation, said automation is moving far beyond its traditional foothold in auto assembly plants and other large manufacturers into warehouses and smaller factories.

One of those is Metro Plastics Technologies Inc, a family-owned business in Noblesville, Indiana, which has only 125 employees and got its start in the 1970s making, among other things, mood rings. Last March, the company bought its first robot, an autonomous machine that carries finished parts from the production area to quality inspectors. In the past, that work was done by workers driving forklifts.

“We had three propane, 5,000-pound forklifts,” said Ken Hahn, the company’s president.  “We’ve eliminated those.” Hahn’s robot cost $40,000, about twice that of the cheapest option he considered, but far below the $125,000 machines also on offer.

Last year marked the first time since 2010 that auto and auto part companies failed to account for more than half of shipments, coming at just under 49 percent instead, according to the report. In 2017, over 60 percent of shipments went to automakers.

“The food industry is really starting to take off as a market for automation,” said Dan Hasley, director of sales and marketing for Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc, part of Japan’s Kawasaki HeavyIndustries.. He added that “food and beverage is one of the segments that really responds to tight labor markets.”

(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel; Editing by Joe White and Tom Brown)

Robots will be your colleagues not your replacement: Manpower

FILE PHOTO: A robotic bartender prepares drinks inside a space modul-like structure in Prague, Czech Republic, November 28, 2018. REUTERS/David W Cerny/File Photo

BERLIN (Reuters) – Fears that robots will eliminate your job are unfounded with a growing number of employers planning to increase or maintain headcount as a result of automation, staffing company ManpowerGroup said in a survey published on Friday.

The “Humans Wanted: Robots Need You” report surveyed 19,000 employers in 44 countries and found 69 percent of firms were planning to maintain the size of their workforce while 18 percent wanted to hire more people as a result of automation. That was the highest result in three years.

The report went on to say that 24 percent of the firms that will invest in automation and digital technologies over the next two years plan to add jobs compared to 18 percent of those who are not automating.

Just 9 percent of employers in the annual survey said automation would directly lead to job losses, while 4 percent did not know what the impact would be.

“More and more robots are being added to the workforce, but humans are too,” said Jonas Prising, Chairman & CEO of ManpowerGroup.

“Tech is here to stay and it’s our responsibility as leaders to become Chief Learning Officers and work out how we integrate humans with machines.”

More than 3 million industrial robots will be in use in factories around the world by 2020, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

The Manpower survey found that 84 percent of firms planned to help their workers learn new skills by 2020, compared to just 21 percent in 2011.

The global talent shortage is at a 12-year-high, with many companies struggling to fill jobs, according to Manpower.

In Germany, where unemployment is at a record low, a shortage of talent was the top concern of small-to-mid-sized companies heading into 2019, according to a survey by the BVMW Mittelstand association.

The Manpower survey found IT skills are particularly in demand with 16 percent of companies expecting to hire staff in IT.

In manufacturing and production, where industrial robots are increasingly doing routine tasks, firms expect to hire more people in customer-facing roles that require skills such as communication, leadership, negotiation and adaptability.

Employers in Singapore, Costa Rica, Guatemala and South Africa expected to add the most staff, while firms in Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Norway, Slovakia and Romania predicted a decrease in headcount, the survey found.

(Writing by Caroline Copley; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

Highest levels of radiation reported by TEPCO from Fukushima power plant

A worker puts up new logo of TEPCO Holdings and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Group on the wall ahead of the transition to a holding company system through a compan

By Kami Klein

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced the highest documented radiation levels ever recorded in reactor 2 of the damaged Fukushima  No. 1 power plant.  Based on its analysis of measurements and pictures taken by a remote controlled sensor and camera instrument, radiation levels recorded were the highest ever documented since the triple core meltdown in March 2011. TEPCO also reported close to a 3 foot hole in the metal grating under the pressure vessel of reactor 2 of the damaged Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

According to the Japan Times the power plant has reached a maximum of 530 sieverts per hour.  At 530 sieverts, a person could die from even the briefest exposure.  This highlights the difficulties that lie ahead for TEPCO and the Japanese Government as they try to figure out a way to dismantle all three reactors that were damaged by the March, 2011 9.0 earthquake and giant tsunami that killed almost 16,000 people.

Officials had never taken into account for the “unimaginable” radiation levels that are being seen.  Experts say that 1 sievert could lead to infertility, loss of hair and cataracts.  Cancer risks increase substantially with any radiation levels above the 100 millisieverts or 1 sievert mark.

In a report by the Washington Post, TEPCO recorded radiation near the reactor core using a stick-like robot equipped with a camera and a device designed to measure radiation levels and has suggested that some melted fuel escaped.  Officials state that this was the first time this kind of device has been able to get into this part of the reactor, which explains the unprecedented amount of radiation recorded.  TEPCO said that at this level of radiation, a robot would only operate for less than two hours before it was destroyed.

If deposits that have been seen on portions of the grating are proven to be melted fuel, it would be the first time they have found even a trace of any sign of the fuel rods since the core meltdowns occurred. Levels of radiation are too high to check the actual condition of the fuel, which they believe has melted through their pressure vessels and is pooled at the bottom of their containment units.  This fuel MUST be discovered and removed before the plants can be decommissioned.

Reuters reports that TEPCO has been developing robots that can swim under water and navigate obstacles in damaged tunnels and piping to search for the melted fuel rods.  But as soon as the robots get close to the reactors, the radiation destroys their wiring and renders them useless.  TEPCO does plan to send this robot into Reactor 1 but are still unsure regarding Reactor 2 because of the very intense radiation levels.

Officials still state that these levels may not actually be rising but because they have not been tested so closely to the reactor, they are just now getting a better idea of the true levels recorded. TEPCO does report a 30% margin of error in the tests.

The effects of the radiation on the rest of the world have been in constant discussion and arguments among government officials and environmental scientists.  One year ago, PBS reported that more than 80 percent of the radioactivity from the damaged reactors ended up in the Pacific, far more than ever reached the ocean from Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.  A small fraction is currently on the seafloor, but the rest was swept up by the Kuroshio current, a western Pacific version of the Gulf Stream, and carried out to sea.  Recently, radioactive contamination has been documented near British Columbia and California.