Together, those changes mean the modern robot has a much broader range of job prospects than its predecessors. The first industrial robot, the General Motors Unimate, was built in 1961 specifically to work in dirty and dangerous foundry environments. And it was the automotive industry, with its unique combination of high production volumes, physically challenging but repeatable work, and a willingness to design products specifically for robotic assembly, which went on to become their biggest employer. Carmakers and their suppliers still account for around 40 percent of total industrial robot sales, and they are continuing to invest as they expand robotic production into new areas.
But where other sectors were once just a footnote on the industrial robot’s résumé, they are now catching up fast. The electronics industry, which has traditionally relied so heavily on the nimble fingers of human workers, is now facing more pressure to automate as it becomes increasingly hard to find enough factory workers to meet demand. Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, has been developing its own industrial robots since 2007, for example, and says it now uses 50,000 of them across its operations, with plans to grow that number by 10,000 a year.
As robots get cheaper and more user-friendly, they increasingly make economic sense in other industries too, from aerospace to agriculture, which also have “dull, dirty or dangerous” jobs for which it is hard to find human workers, but which previously couldn’t justify the cost of and complexity of buying and programming a robot to do them. Robots are even finding work in roles that require very high levels of precision and coordination, from surgery to watchmaking.
Advances in safety technology are making a big difference too. While earlier generations of industrial robots had to operate in cages to prevent them injuring human workers who accidentally came too close to a fast-moving arm, the latest models, such as Baxter from Rethink Robotics, include technologies that allow them to detect the presence of other workers and to modify their movements to avoid collisions. For the first time, this makes it possible for robots and people to work side by side on the same production lines, and for companies to consider automating individual parts of otherwise manual assembly jobs, or allowing robots and humans to share the same tasks depending on demand.