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Some 1.4 million new industrial robots will be added to factories by 2019, according to forecasts from the International Federation of Robotic s. These will include many cobots – "collaborative robots" that work hand-in-hand with people. There is no question that this will transform companies and the job market. But experts disagree about what this means for workers. While some praise the strengths of their new "coworkers," others remain skeptical.

Keeping the upper hand

We are not looking at a wave of automation like what was experienced in the 1970s and 1980s, say some. German Engineering Federation VDMA sees nothing worrying in the rising numbers of robots in factories. Even labor union IG Metall sees no cause for concern, as long as "people keep the upper hand" and avoid being pushed into a "subordinate role in the lightweight construction dance," says chair Jörg Hofmann. Cobots can support workers with ergonomically difficult tasks. For example, lightweight construction robots can hold parts for older workers, giving people the opportunity to stay in their jobs longer during this era of aging demographics. Cobots are also helpful when it comes to repetitive tasks. In the automobile industry, for example, they ensure that the proper pressure is employed when factory workers apply door seals. Unlike what is possible with conventional robots, cobots' sophisticated sensors help them automatically maintain a suitable distance from human coworkers.

Magic formula: qualification + training

What is also clear, however, is that the more cobots are used in factories, the more companies need to invest in workforce skills and training. The need for retraining and further education is on the rise. This was the conclusion of a study by the Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim (ZEW) , which also points to another important facet of the debate: robots are replacing tasks, not jobs. This means the topic of lifelong learning in careers is continuously gaining relevance, because unlike robots, people can gain experience and access it when they need to. It's true that machines are also increasingly able to learn – but applying their knowledge in completely new settings is still beyond their reach. The ZEW evokes a further aspect as well: Using new technologies frequently leads to higher productivity and rising competitiveness, which ultimately creates new jobs.

Jobs in danger?

A more skeptical view comes from the Ing-Diba bank. Its study of expanding automation estimates that up to 18 million jobs are threatened in Germany alone over then next ten to 20 years. Warehousing, hospitality, secretarial and parcel services jobs in particular could all be eliminated by robotization. The ZEW similarly indicates in its study that less qualified and lower-paid jobs are in more danger than those in academics, for example. By implication, then, if new jobs are created, they will be more demanding than those that disappeared.

Companies that continue to improve collaborative work between people and machines are in the best position to benefit in the future. What human abilities can be further leveraged, that robots cannot take over? The key might be to give factory workers more qualifying education opportunities, teaching creative problem-solving approaches for example.

Application scenarios at HANNOVER MESSE

The automobile industry pioneered this technology, but other sectors are catching up. Visitors to HANNOVER MESSE 2017 can explore the many different ways cobots are used. Learn about the possibilities offered by lightweight construction cobots, for example, in presentations, demos and conferences.