Editor’s note: Welcome to So That Happened, our editors’ takes on things going on in the manufacturing world that deserve some extra attention. This will appear regularly in the Member’s Only section of the site.
Robots Are Sad in Q2 2023
According to the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), robot orders from April to July 2023 declined by 37%, for a 20% drop in value, compared to the same period in 2022. Combine these numbers with Q1's dismal results and we have a North American robotics market that's down by 29% overall compared to the first half of 2022.
A slowing economy and high interest rates explain the slowdown, says A3, even if manufacturers face the same labor struggles for which robots in many cases proved an adequate solution since COVID drew down the workforce in 2020 and even in the face of reshoring initiatives driving the need for labor.
Non-automotive customers purchased 52% of the robots sold in Q2 2023 with total sales in that sector down by 20%. The other 48% of robots purchased in Q2 went to the automotive industry, with total orders down by 49%.
The strongest overall demand for robots between April and July came from the semiconductor and electronics industries, according to A3.
Adding SCALE to the Semiconductor Workforce
The U.S. Department of Defense last week announced it has injected fresh funding into a program, led by Purdue University and now including 18 other institutions, designed to develop the microelectronics workforce the armed forces need.
Purdue officials and peers across the country will receive a second installment of more than $19 million—the first was sent their way in mid-2022—as part of the Scalable Asymmetric Lifecycle Engagement program (SCALE for short) that focuses on radiation-hardened microelectronics and trusted artificial intelligence tools in addition to training and continuing education. Purdue is getting $3.8 million in funding while Indiana University will receive $5 million and Vanderbilt University $1.6 million. Being added to the program for this second round of money are, among other things, historically black Morgan State University and the University of Tulsa.
“The expectation from multiple credible studies is there will be major shortages in the microelectronics workforce on a national scale if we do nothing,” said Peter Bermel, SCALE’s director and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue. “Part of the reason is that fewer U.S. students are going into undergraduate and graduate studies in high-tech areas.”
That lament will sound familiar to many an executive and educator in other parts of the economy. And while SCALE isn’t yet operating at great, uh, scale, it is putting up solid early numbers. More than 500 students have enrolled in the past three years and two-thirds of the 69 who have graduated so far have taken jobs in the defense microelectronics sector.
Modular Systems … Assemble
Flexpipe, a modular system equipment company, has introduced Lean Maker Academy, a free online certification program created to teach employees how to assemble modular system equipment at their own pace.
“Flexpipe’s Lean Maker Academy is all about empowering your workers so they can be autonomous,” said Julien Depelteau, chief executive officer, Flexpipe. “The Academy helps them work safely and efficiently to create any structure needed in lean manufacturing.”
The step-by-step program consists of interactive video lessons and quizzes. The first available course covers tubular systems, whether Flexpipe or otherwise. Certifications for additional systems will be added in the future.
“The Lean Maker Academy not only transforms participants from novices to experts, but also guides them in establishing a dedicated workshop for rapid responses to kaizen and continuous improvement requirements,” Depelteau said.
The Robot Serfs Are Coming for Your Turf
“Futuristic Lawncare” would be an excellent name for a suburban-dad rock band, but it’s actually the title of a press release we got a few weeks ago.
A study from industrial research firm the Freedonia Group predicts that demand for robots to mow your lawn, shovel your driveway and clean your pool (and startle your dog) will grow by 24% per year through 2027. The reasons cited: people returning the office and lacking time to spruce the yard; labor shortages tempering the human supply of landscapers, pool-cleaners and snow-shovelers; and a slew of not-quite-there innovations just waiting to be improved upon, including (from the release):
The Farmbot Genisis: a crowdsourced robotic gardening system that takes the fun out of gardening by planting, watering and weeding crops itself.
Beetl: an automated pooper-scooper that detects and picks up Fido’s business before you have a chance to step in it. Unfortunately, unlike Fido’s business, right now the Beetl is “only a concept.”
iRobot Looj: a discontinued iRobot gutter cleaner that “can still be purchased from some third-party vendors.” That actually sounds pretty amazing—why was it discontinued? Well, “while in concept and in perfect conditions the Looj 300 performed well, it was prone to flipping and getting stuck on tougher, wet blockages.”
Science can send William Shatner to outer space, but for the time being, gutter cleaning is best left to someone with a bucket and a free afternoon.