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OM in the News: Robots Work Their Way Into Small Factories

September 23, 2014

robotRobots aren’t just for the big guys anymore,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 18, 2014).  A new breed of so-called collaborative machines—designed to work alongside people in close settings—is changing the way some of America’s smaller manufacturers do their jobs. The machines, priced as low as $20,000, provide such companies—small jewelry makers and toy makers among them—with new incentives to automate to increase overall productivity and lower labor costs.

Robots have been on factory floors for decades. But they were mostly big machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be caged off to keep them from smashing into humans. Such machines could only do one thing over and over, albeit extremely fast and precisely. As a result, they were neither affordable nor practical for small businesses.

Collaborative robots can be set to do one task one day—such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box—and a different task the next. Some are mobile and able to range freely inside a factory. The use of advanced sensors means they stop or reposition themselves when a person gets in their way, solving a safety issue that long kept robots out of smaller factories.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why will factories always need people?

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these smaller robots?

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