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During the past 50 years, there has been a sharp decline in the recognition and education of skilled trades. Now, as Baby Boomers begin to retire from the construction, manufacturing and engineering fields, 31 million positions will be open to vocational workers in the next two years. The problem? Many people are fearful that skilled trades will be replaced by automation. This belief is false. While skilled trades might see an influx in automation, the technology will supplement existing jobs and create new ones—rather than replace them.

Although it is too early to predict the jobs that automation may create, we know that machine operation is wholly personal, so humans will still be a necessary component for the work.

The current technology supporting skilled trades

One of the most common ways automation will supplement vocational work is through the use of cobots. A cobot, otherwise known as a collaborate robot, is a robot intended to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace. This is in contrast to other robots that are designed to operate autonomously or with limited guidance.

Collaborative robots are complex machines that work hand in hand with humans. In a shared process, the cobots support and relieve the human operator. Limited robots work directly with human workers to execute tasks that are too hard on their bodies. This is particularly ideal for lifting heavy weights or doing repetitive movements.

Since the introduction of the first commercial cobots in 2011, significant advances have improved their capacities, acceptance, cost and use. Cobots can be purchased for as low as $15,000 and have little additional expenses such as end-of-arm tooling.

Mutually beneficial features

Cobots have several unique features that allow them to work and interact with humans that typical robots do not.

Force and power limitations: Cobots use force sensors in their joints and articulating arms. When a sensor identifies an unexpected force in direction or pressure, the cobot immediately stops. This action limits applied force and reduces or eliminates kinetic energy. The cobot can run at full speed and stop immediately.

  • Image processing: Machine visioning has improved to the point where the machine can sense abnormal conditions in the work environment and appropriately stop when conditions are out of the normal expectation.
  • Laser motion sensing: This feature enhances the machine vision and improves the cobot’s ability to learn the surrounding environment.
  • Rounded designs and absorbing impact finishes: A sleek design eliminates blunt force strike and allows the impact to spread forces over larger areas.
  • Passive compliance: Passive compliance allows cobots to submit to abnormal external forces. In a collision, the cobot’s joints pivot away from the force to eliminate injury or damage.

Cobots are becoming one of the fastest growing market segments in industrial robotics automation. U.S. growth is expected to move from 11,500 units in 2017 to 134,000 units in 2025.

Organizational benefits of automation

Cobots aren’t the only automation designed to collaborate with skilled trades workers. There are numerous automated software programs and artificial intelligence technologies that are enhancing business practices.

For instance, automation can streamline communication between those providing a service and those that need service. Meeting client expectations can be easier with good communication. Moreover, automation can manage tasks. It can recognize the most efficient way to meet deadlines and divvy up tasks accordingly.

Perhaps one of the most innovative automation technologies helping vocational workers is task management software. An algorithm is used to match people to jobs, ensuring that specialized work is performed at the highest quality in the most efficient amount of time.

With the vast technologies available to skilled trades, the quality of work can only improve. In fact, skilled trades might be one of the most secure jobs on the market. Automation will continue to change lives, but it will be the mindfulness and specialization of humans that helps this technology reach its full potential.

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