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A.R.M.'D for the Next Wave: Advancing Robotics in Manufacturing

Cover Stories MadeinPA

We know two things for certain about U.S. manufacturing. The industry must become more advanced to stay competitive globally, and manufacturers need to keep employees employable by educating them to keep up to date with technological advances.

In this day and age, “advanced” means adapting to, and using, robots in the manufacturing process and keeping employees current about working with robots. But doesn’t manufacturing with robots mean fewer jobs for people? “Not in the least,” Jay Douglass firmly points out. Jay is the COO at Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM), a national non-profit with ties to Carnegie Mellon University. “With more robots,” he emphasizes, “manufacturing will need more employees with different skills and education to operate them, to supervise operations, and to exercise control on the manufacturing shop floor.” According to Douglass, robots are now used extensively in the aerospace, automotive and health care industries, primarily at large organizations. One of the goals of ARM is to help small and medium manufacturers (SMMs) use more robots in their environment. “The mission of ARM,” Douglass explains, “is to accelerate the use of industrial robots to drive growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector, with an emphasis on key industrial and growth areas like aerospace, automotive, electronics, textiles and other industries our members define for us.” This is a member-driven consortium, currently numbering about 160 member organizations. Members provide insight and advice on projects they believe are vital to achieving the mission of ARM. Members often submit proposals to participate in projects with cost share contributed by members. Funding is supplied by the U.S. Department of Defense, which considers a strong manufacturing base a high priority for national security and economic growth.

“The mission of ARM,” Douglass explains, “is to accelerate the use of industrial robots to drive growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector, with an emphasis on key industrial and growth areas like aerospace, automotive, electronics, textiles and other industries our members define for us.”

“Our current focus,” he continued, “includes versatile robotic systems that can perform multiple tasks, rapid deployment and re-purposing of robots, collaborative robots or cobots, and delivering cost-effective solutions.” At the same time, ARM helps employees of companies using robots to advance their knowledge of robotic technology. A recent analysis from the Brookings Institution tells us that the automotive industry accounts for almost half of industrial robots in the U.S. Auto manufacturers use robots to burn welds, paint cars, assemble products, handle materials or package items. Manufacturers in the aerospace industry use robots for drilling and fastening, inspection, welding, sealing and dispensing, and rigid manufacturing. ARM members include manufacturers, robotics companies, government organizations, non-profits and academic organizations across the United States. Two members in the Pittsburgh region are RE2 and the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). “I founded RE2 Robotics with a single purpose—to develop technology that saves lives,” said Jorgen Pedersen, President and CEO. RE2 develops mobile robotic technologies that enable users to remotely interact with their world from a safe distance-on the ground, in the air or underwater. The company creates interoperable robotic manipulator arms with human-like performance, intuitive human-robot interfaces, and advanced-autonomy software. The main robotic-arm products of RE2 center around human-like capability. These arms are lightweight, compact, power efficient, dexterous, strong, and operate in adverse weather conditions. RE2’s Highly Dexterous Manipulation System (HDMS) is like the torso of a human being with two arms that can perform tasks like opening a duffel bag, lifting a heavy object, or unscrewing the lid of a small bottle. Up to now, RE2 had concentrated 100 percent of its efforts on the defense market. RE2, joined ARM to help broaden its reach into commercial markets like industrial automation, oil and gas, and assisted health care. RE2’s robots have proven their value in military operations, and the company is actively exploring ways to take their products into manufacturing. Working with ARM provides RE2 with the ability to engage with industries looking for the type of products sold by the company, as well as providing the ability to participate in projects to advance the use of robots in manufacturing. But moving robots into factories is only half of the challenge. The other half is assuring that workers are able to operate, program and repair robots. “The competitive, global environment rewards workers who possess sound, general knowledge that enables them to adapt to changes in the workplace and to continually learn new skills,” emphasizes Reggie Overton, Director, Workforce Development, Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). “That’s why,” he continues, “our key focus is to involve workers in the education and skills they need while employed in today’s fast-changing economy.” To keep reaching this objective, CCAC is transforming its workforce training division into a quality-driven, sales-oriented enterprise that works closely with the area’s employers and economic development officials. In the process, CCAC’s Center for Professional Development is becoming the trainer of choice in southwestern Pennsylvania for professional development in business and industry, professional continuing education, public safety and workforce training for health care programs. To help accelerate economic development in our region, CCAC works with regional companies to forecast what hard and soft skills employees will need and will retool programs to meet their needs. The college also promotes the importance of vocational education and the well-paying, satisfying careers available in many fields today. As a member of ARM, CCAC can not only impact our region, but can also share and gain insight with like organizations throughout the U.S. by participating in projects and attending networking events. Without a doubt, the combined emphasis on technology advances and employee education in manufacturing will set the pace and continue to strengthen Pittsburgh’s leadership in robotics. Learn more at