• Bridging the skills gap in robotics education will require changing the technologies used in training.
  • Inexpensive, easier-to-access training can meet projected labor demand and help business maximize the possibilities of the technology.

There’s a skills gap in robotics education. Bridging it is possible and can transform the labor force while expanding the use of robotic automation. The solution, however, will require simplifying robot programming and embracing a new approach to standardization.

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The challenge

Students know robotics skills are in demand, but getting training for higher-paying jobs in manufacturing isn’t always as easy as signing up for a program at the local college. Larry Flatt knows this first hand. As the Executive Director of the Advanced Robotics program at Motlow State Community College, he knows that each week students call the Advanced Robotics program wanting to learn the robotics skills they need to secure a better future.

Larry takes these calls, covers the career options in the field and then asks a pointed question: “Who do you want to work for?” Typically, this question often confuses the students. They’re looking for skills that will allow them to apply to a wide range of employers. They’ll tell Larry: “I’m just looking to get the advanced skills I need to get hired.”

Such skills, Larry will explain, are not so simple to identify. There is no single robotic programming skill that works across employers. At one local automotive company, workers use FANUC robots. For the wood product manufacturer, workers use ABB robots. And the plastics manufacturer, uses yet another brand of robot, Yaskawa.

These stories often conclude here. As there is no clear path for students to invest their time and money in a vendor specific skill, Larry often won’t hear from students again.

While the state of industrial robotics education is in disarray, the issue does not lay with educators trying to develop curriculums to teach students robotics. Educators are following a decades-old approach that focuses on difficult to use, brand-specific robot skills. Educators need a new approach, one that leverages advances in technology to make robot programming easier rather than doubling down on just delivering an outdated version of robotics education. The challenges stem from a stubborn industry, where vendors create their own unique walled gardens, with their own robot programming language and associated interfaces. Such approaches make it difficult to teach the full set of skills students need to deploy automation when they get to their new jobs.

Additionally, robotics and automation are very often taught as their own disciplines. By combining them, and making robots easier to use, there will be a much wider adoption of robotics. Nearly anyone should be able to apply the tools to automate whatever manufacturing process they manage.

Standardization is already in place in manufacturing education. In the middle of US coal country, a Haas Technical Education Center (HTEC), the eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI) is training students in Advanced Manufacturing skills. The students who graduate from eKAMI can be very proficient on almost any lathe or mill. In addition, they know how to approach a machining job, decompose it, program the machine, and then perform the quality assurance checks with measurement tools. They also learn G-Code, a standard language used to control advanced manufacturing machines. Because of the standardization, even though eKAMI only trains on Haas machines, the students can be up and running on machines from another vendor in no time.

Unfortunately, for robot programming education, the same story cannot be told. Robotics training is not a part of every manufacturing class being taught. There are no standards for robotic control - not in the user interface or the programming language. As a result, students are not taught general robotic automation skills but vendor-specific skills from the start. Schools must also choose which robots they will teach as they themselves have to invest tens of thousands of dollars in training for their own instructors.

For robotics graduates to be competitive on a global level must be able to multiply their output through the use of automation. Aaron Prather, R&D Evangelist at FedEx Express, says it best. “We can upskill our workers and create a superhuman workforce with skills that make them orders of magnitude more productive than they otherwise would have been. I believe this has the potential to both increase manufacturing output and create tens of thousands of high-quality jobs.”

The solution

Real change for the industry will take reforming robotics education. Such a move can pay long-term dividends in upskilling workers. However, it will require dramatic improvement in these six areas:

1. Focus on the skills to automate, rather than just the nuances of a robot programming language.

There are a wide variety of applications that can be automated using robotics. While programming the robot may be a common thread, learning what to automate can be more important than knowing how to automate.

2. Train on real robots.

There are suppliers in the education industry who use robots that don’t match the capabilities of real industrial robots. This lack of realism causes a few issues for students:

  • Students are likely to be demotivated since they realize the robots used for training is more of a toy than something that could be used in a real-world setting.
  • They don’t learn any real-world tasks.
  • They perform small scale simulations and don’t learn the hard lessons about automating systems in the real world, such as tending a lathe or stacking boxes.

3. Enable educational institutions to purchase robots in a competitive way.

By removing vendor specific programming barriers, we can enable institutions to put out to bid the robots used in a class. The ability to choose robots on price or capability has three excellent benefits:

  • The ability to purchase real robots used throughout industry.
  • A wider range of robots for students to learn from.
  • The ability to train on more real-world applications.

4. Create content for students, not content to create robot vendor specific developers.

Our advanced manufacturing students should learn the general skills that enable them to work with any robot on the market. Instead, they are forced to spend far too much time on robot specific nuances in vendor lead training. Most of the existing robotics training is vendor-based training, not skills-based training.

5. Add robotics as a mandatory component of other skills training, such as machining.

Robotics should not be a separate curriculum. For manufacturers to remain competitive on a global basis, we must make automation ubiquitous. What is important is that the students get the basic skills to understand automation as a tool, an extension of their own capabilities and to leverage themselves to do more.

6. Reduce the ongoing costs needed to keep educational centers current.

Christopher Wyant, Program Director of Robotics and Industrial Maintenance at Wichita State University Tech, points out why robotics training is so costly. “Since each vendor requires their own walled garden of skills and processes, educational centers are left trying to host multiple types of robots and training programs, which is very costly in dollars, and also limiting since nearly the same course content is duplicated amongst the brands. In the end, we try to be a lot of things to a lot of people and do none of them justice. A student may be trained on three to four different platforms, but still encounter something different when they get out into industry.”

"To modernize our workforce, we’ll need to also modernize the technologies used in training, ensuring that workers can shift nimbly to meet the industry’s ever-changing needs."

Looking ahead

Training centers would be in a much better place if they could use their current asset base and simply update the software and UI to match evolving industry standards.

These elements are already in place in some curriculums. For instance, the READY Robotics’ curriculum, leveraging easy-to-use cross brand robot programming software Forge/OS, ensures schools like eKAMI have the capability to train every new student in robotics. This curriculum does not teach robot programmers but teaches machinists to use robots.

This READY system can train almost anyone in robotics. As a testament to the power of Forge/OS, eKAMI students can program multiple brands of robots in one day, and are able to program a lights-out manufacturing task in just 2.5 weeks – when none had ever touched a robot before. eKAMI was already placing all of its students into industry, but now their students know what is possible when it comes to automation. Such knowledge is an incredible advantage in the sector and will benefit both students and employers alike.

Shifting from costly, fragmented and overly-complex user interfaces has other benefits. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 383,000 CNC machinists in the United States but only 15,000 Mechatronics Technologists trained to work with robots. Inexpensive, easier-to-use technology and online training access can expand the number of workers prepared to work in robotics and therefore the number of manufacturers prepared to implement automation.

Such change is possible across robotics education but it won’t come overnight. Educators must invest in and adopt new technology and revise their curriculum to be less specific to robot brands. Manufacturers must also break the brand lock-in that currently exists by adopting technology that simplifies and standardizes robot interfaces. Still, some progress can be made now, and tools such as those provided by READY’s training provide a path for both educators and manufacturers.

The use of robotics will be a key enabler for manufacturers that succeed in the coming years. This change cannot come, however, without a dramatic worker upskilling and reskilling. To modernize our workforce, we’ll need to also modernize the technologies used in training, ensuring that workers can shift nimbly to meet the industry’s ever-changing needs.