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By Marie Angel

Vulcans, Klingons and Starfleet command. Anyone who grew up in Canada watching CBC on Sunday morning, vividly remembers Captain James T. Kirk piloting the high-tech Starship Enterprise and demanding the hot-tempered engineer with an alluring Scottish brogue, Mr. Scott, to engage the innovative Warp drive to venture into far-off galaxies with a mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Star Trek, the brainchild of Gene Rodenberry, hit the airwaves in 1966 right in the midst of the science fiction revolution that swept the industrialized world. It was just five years after George Devol’s first robotic arm device, Unimate, was introduced in a General Motors factory in New Jersey. Undoubtedly one of the biggest game changers for mass production manufacturing in the auto industry since the days of Henry Ford, the primative robot  now has some highly evolved ancestors.

Almost five decades later, Kitchener, ON’s Clearpath Robotics’ snappy tagline to “Boldly go where no robot has gone before” speaks volumes about the state of the robotics industry today.

The company that started as a University of Waterloo project to “decrease the casualties of war,” has really found its niche in the unmanned vehicle market and is leading the robotics charge not just here in Canada, but around the globe.

“We believe that the future will be highly automated and that robots will play a massive role in our lives. Our vision is to automate the world’s dullest, dirtiest and deadliest jobs,” says Matt Rendall, Clearpath Co-Founder and CEO. “To get there, we need innovators to build, experiment and create that future. Clearpath and our clients are paving the way for robotics through innovation, by boldly going where no robot has gone before.”

The company switched gears so to speak and discovered new uses in the research field for its all-terrain robots that can navigate land, air and water and undoubtedly have a tendency to bring out the playful child in all of us.

But don’t kid yourself. These aren’t cool looking toys — they are very high-tech and complex units that “solve customer problems” in the research fields, Rendall says.

“We started building robots to remove landmines from war-torn countries, although the project turned into something that was more high cost and high risk than we were prepared to handle,” explains Rendall. “We pivoted our focus from mine detection to autonomous ground vehicle platforms for research — and that’s how our Husky Unmanned Ground Vehicle, came to be.”

From vacuuming floors, to being a help-line on your smartphone, to playing chess, and beating humans on Jeopardy, and to this month, taking on the world ping pong champion, robots are being designed to make our lives easier and more productive.

“This isn’t science fiction. It’s a virtual reality,” says Jayson Myers, president & CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. “Robotics has transformed manufacturing and has driven the innovation and R&D charge in Canada — it will continue to do so into the future.”

Higher. Stronger. Faster. No, we’re not talking about the Olympics, but the new virtual reality of compete to win Myers is referring to, in a 21st century that features man coexisting with machine.

Just how big is the industry?

According to the recent report Global Industrial Robotics Market Forecast & Opportunities, the global industrial robotics market revenues are predicted to reach $37 billion USD by 2018. China is expected to lead the demand for industrial robots in the next five years.

And fuelling this surge is an increase in demand for industrial robots, specifically in the manufacturing sector.

The International Federation of Robotics projects that by 2016, there will be 1.65 million industrial robots working worldwide — a 30 per cent increase from 2011. In 2013, How Stuff Works founder Marshall Brain estimates there were 1.2 million robots in the workforce worldwide, or one robot for every 5,000 people.

Add into the equation a study by McKinsey Global Institute that projects that 230 million white-collar jobs, or $9 trillion in income, will likely be eliminated and we have some calling for an Armageddon in our evolving workforce, as machines are expected to replace humans.

That’s the new elephant in the room.

“Robots are currently analyzing documents, filling prescriptions, and handling other tasks that were once exclusively done by humans,” writes Business Insider blogger, Judith Aquino in one of her recent posts.

Two MIT scholars, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their publication, Race Against the Machine are adamant that the end of the world is near for many menial jobs, hitting the middle class the hardest, all because we can’t keep up to the accelerating pace of change.

But should we sound the warning bells just yet? No.

While robotics is integral to replacing manual labour and reducing operating costs, the sector is also creating new job opportunities, according to the US-based Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI).

The manufacturing worker of tomorrow will need to have a higher level of technical training to design, integrate, operate, and maintain robotic technologies.

“Expect to see growth in job functions such as integration services, mechatronics engineering, robotic training and operating and PLC and servo programming,” says Paula Feldman, director, business intelligence, PMMI.
It’s time for a bit of a reality check, says CME’s Myers.

“Governments don’t create jobs. Companies don’t create jobs. Customers create jobs,” he declares. “Companies have to be competitive on a global scale and at the end of the day, turn a profit.  If robots make a company more competitive and create the opportunity to serve their customers in the best manner possible, what’s the alternative? No jobs.

“Robots need people as much as people need robots. But the key to the jobs of the future is figuring out what high-value skills are needed for tomorrow, what the needs of the industry will be and most importantly, a commitment to life-long training.”

And Rendall echoes that statement.

“Robots will create new opportunities. If you take a look at the industrial revolution, jobs were created, new fields emerged and job displacement occurred as machines took on tasks and people found new opportunities,” he says. “What we’re entering is the robot revolution where job displacement will occur and new markets, and jobs within those markets, will be created. Human interaction will always be required to some extent, so robots should be embraced - this is an exciting time.”

Regardless of what side of the robotics age debate you take, it’s arrived and will undoubtedly continue to transform industries like manufacturing, and our daily lives.

And it will be people driving the charge into the next-generation of robotics. In the words of Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain, a starship also runs on loyalty to one man. And nothing can replace it or him.

Live long and prosper.” 

Photos: Provided by Clearpath Robotics

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