Mary Gonzalez has worked at KAM Plastics in Holland since 2017.
This summer, she got a new co-worker named Joey.
And when Joey first showed up, it put a fear in Mary Gonzalez.
“I mean, seriously it did,” she says. “‘Cause when they brought him in, he was over there and I’d go way around him.”
This, her coworkers told her, was craziness.
Joey wasn’t a threat to her, they said.
Joey wasn’t even plugged in yet.
Joey, her soon-to-be coworker, is a robot.
And the way things are going, a lot more people are going to have coworkers like Joey in the future.
Joey has been on the job now for several months inside the factory for KAM Plastics in Holland.
You can see it in the back corner, bolted to a stand, zipping through its motions. Its silver and grey arms twist and reach, grabbing a small black plastic part, dropping it off into a machine, then picking it back up when it’s done. In the final step, Joey drops the part into a bin, where Mary Gonzales takes over to inspect the work.
Gradually, Gonzales says she’s learned to trust her new coworker.
“I wasn’t scared of him anymore, and I think I know I can outrun him,” she laughs. “But no, he’s pretty good.”
Now, she says, she actually prefers Joey in some ways.
“Because Joey listens,” she says. “He won’t talk back to me.”
Joey is not the robot’s real name. It’s nicknamed, after the human who programmed it at KAM.
Joey the robot’s birth name is actually UR5, from Universal Robots, a company based in Denmark.
And the UR5 is what’s known as a cobot – short for collaborative robot.
Kevin Beckman is the engineering manager at KAM Plastics.
“And one of the advantages of cobots is it can work side by side with people without any guarding,” says Kevin Beckman, engineering manager at KAM. “You can see there’s no guarding around that. So the nature of a cobot is it can work hand in hand with employees safely.”
And that is not just a big deal here at KAM Plastics.
It’s a big deal for manufacturing in general.
“The fact that we have robots that work safely side by side with people and you’re not keeping people away. That is revolutionary,” says Jeff Burnstein, who heads the Association for Advancing Automation in Ann Arbor.
Robots in manufacturing aren’t new. But the first wave of robots were mostly huge. They swung through a set of motions and if any human got in the way, that human got clobbered. So the robots had to be fenced off away from humans while they worked.
Collaborative robots (AKA "cobots") are generally smaller, and sensitive with systems built in to shut the robot down if it bumps into anything.
They’re also cheaper, which means more small manufacturers are able to afford them.
Interact Analysis, a research firm that tracks the robotics industry, says sales of cobots are growing faster than other types of robots.
"When you look at the overall robotics industry, it’s had a pretty tough year in 2019 because of the global economic situation, not just in the U.S. but throughout Europe and Asia,” says Ash Sharma, a research director at Interact Analysis. “The collaborative robot industry hasn’t really seen that and has continued to grow in 2019 at a very substantial pace.”
Shipments of cobots in the U.S. grew almost 30 percent this year compared to 2018, according to Interact Analysis. Sharma says he expects that to continue to grow even faster in the next five years.
People who follow the robotics industry, like Burnstein and Sharma say these kinds of robots won’t mean that people are suddenly out of a job. One of the drivers of robotics sales has been that companies can’t find humans to do the work.
But the rise of cobots is changing things for the workers who are in the factories.
Not a talker
Back at KAM, Joey works side by side with two other humans.
Kevin Beckman says, before Joey, it was three humans, zero robots.
Which means Joey took a job.
“It did,” Beckman says. “But it allowed that operator to move to a different part of the facility and do something bigger and better, more important to KAM. We can utilize them for more important things than the redundant task of loading this machine over and over and over throughout the day.”
At KAM, no one gets laid off from a robot showing up. But they might get moved somewhere else.
It may not work out that way at other factories. One thing that makes KAM different is it’s employee-owned.
So when a robot shows up to save the company money, like Joey is doing, workers get a cut of the increased profitability. Most other manufacturing workers aren’t that lucky.
And still, even though this is a pretty sweet set up for the workers at KAM, there are tradeoffs.
Adam Zuniga is the human on the other side of Joey, opposite Mary Gonzalez. Zuniga says before Joey, he had a coworker named Nate. A real human.
“Nate was always fun to talk to,” Zuniga says. “There were some days where we didn’t say much, but you know we’d talk about all types of stuff. Joey never says anything. I don’t know what his problem is.”
Joey just isn’t a talker. But, robots like Joey are becoming more of a standard part of manufacturing.
"It's going to be very likely that companies will need to invest in this technology over the next five to ten years if they want to remain competitive,” says Sharma.
That means a lot more humans will have to get used to having a robot as a coworker.