EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first piece of a two-part report examining robots in Canada’s auto industry. You can read the second part here.
Technology is often blamed for replacing humans in the job market, but when Shelley Fellows looks at a collaborative robot — a cobot — she sees the result of highly paid, highly skilled labour.
“I see the mechanical designer who designed the tooling at the end of that robot arm,” said Fellows, vice-president of communications at Windsor, Ont.-based AIS Technology Group, which specializes in automation technology.
“I see the workers who fabricated that tooling. I see the electrical designer and the engineers who designed the electrical system and the circuitry. I see the programmers who programmed the controls. I see the vision system designer and the programmer for the vision system.
“I see all of those highly skilled people; and without them, you wouldn’t see that robot on the factory floor,” said Fellows, who also chairs Automate Canada, an industry association devoted to growing Canada’s automation sector.
While robotic technology kills certain jobs, automating the more monotonous tasks typically leads to more interesting, better paid positions, said Linamar Corp. CEO Linda Hasenfratz.
Between 2012 and 2019, the Guelph, Ont.-based parts supplier increased employment in Canada by almost 40 per cent, but the payroll was up 60 per cent. Most of the increase in employment occurred in jobs such as engineer and programmer, Hasenfratz said.
“I think that is an interesting evolution, and it is a winwin all around, but that does have implications for our education and training system.
We have an increased need for people in engineering, technology, math, the trades.
We need to make sure we are graduating people with more skills.”
The cobots also help ease a chronic labour shortage plaguing the parts industry, Hasenfratz said.
“We have got huge shortages and need for people in all of these areas.”
By automating tasks that are more repetitive, the industry can shift its workforce into the higher-value jobs, Hasenfratz said.
Fellows said an opportunity also exists to boost automation manufacturing in Canada. Currently, one-third of Canadian manufacturers source their automation outside the country.
“We can be supplying our Canadian manufacturers with a lot more of our robotics, controls and other automation. To me, it would be a shame if our manufacturers automate but are sourcing most of their technology outside of our country.”
William Melek, director of the University of Waterloo’s Ontario robotics research centre, RoboHub, said making this happen will require a collaborative ecosystem of industry, researchers, policymakers and advisers working together to address everything from workforce training to safety policies for working around cobots, as well as encouraging their development and evolution.
“We can’t be working in isolation,” he said.