Robotics engineers design, develop, build, and program robots and robotic devices, including peripheral equipment and computer software used to control robots. Robotics technicians assist robotics engineers in a wide variety of tasks relating to the design, development, production, testing, operation, repair, and maintenance of robots and robotic devices.
History of Robotics Engineer and Technician Career
Robots are devices that perform tasks ordinarily performed by humans; they seem to operate with an almost human intelligence. The idea of robots can be traced back to the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations. An inventor from the first century A.D., Hero of Alexandria, invented a machine that would automatically open the doors of a temple when the priest lit a fire in the altar. During the later periods of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 17th and 18th centuries, interest in robot-like mechanisms lead to the development of automatons, devices that imitate human and animal appearance and activity but perform no useful task.
The industrial revolution inspired the invention of many different kinds of automatic machinery. One of the most important robotics inventions occurred in 1804: Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s method for controlling machinery by means of a programmed set of instructions recorded on a punched paper tape that was fed into a machine to direct its movements.
The word robot and the concepts associated with it were first introduced in the early 1920s. They made their appearance in a play titled R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, written by Czechoslovakian dramatist Karel Capek. The play involves human-like robotic machines created to perform manual tasks for their human masters.
During the 1950s and 1960s, advances in the fields of automation and computer science led to the development of experimental robots that could imitate a wide range of human activity, including self-regulated and self-propelled movement (either on wheels or on legs), the ability to sense and manipulate objects, and the ability to select a course of action on the basis of conditions around them.
In 1954, George Devol designed the first programmable robot in the United States. He named it the Universal Automation, which was later shortened to Unimation, which also became the name of the first robot company. Hydraulic robots, controlled by numerical control programming, were developed in the 1960s and were used initially by the automobile industry in assembly line operations. By 1973, robots were being built with electric power and electronic controls, which allowed greater flexibility and increased uses.
Robotic technology has evolved significantly in the past few decades. Early robotic equipment, often referred to as first-generation robots, were simple mechanical arms or devices that could perform precise, repetitive motions at high speeds. They contained no artificial intelligence capabilities. Second-generation robots, which came into use in the 1980s, are controlled by minicomputers and programmed by computer language. They contain sensors, such as vision systems and pressure, proximity, and tactile sensors, which provide information about the outside environment. Third-generation robots, also controlled by minicomputers and equipped with sensory devices, are currently being developed. Referred to as “smart” robots, they can work on their own without supervision by an external computer or human being.
The evolution of robots is closely tied to the study of human anatomy and movement of the human body. The early robots were modeled after arms, then wrists. Second-generation robots include features that model human hands. Third-generation robots are being developed with legs and complex joint technology. They also incorporate multisensory input controls, such as ultrasonic sensors or sensors that can “sniff” and “taste.”
The Job of Robotics Engineers and Technicians
The majority of robotics engineers and technicians work within the field of computer-integrated manufacturing or programmable automation. Using computer science technology, engineers design and develop robots and other automated equipment, including computer software used to program robots.
The title robotics engineer may be used to refer to any engineer who works primarily with robots. In many cases, these engineers may have been trained as mechanical, electronic, computer, or manufacturing engineers. A small, but growing, number of engineers trained specially in robotics are graduating from colleges and universities with robotics engineering or closely related degrees.
Robotics engineers have a thorough understanding of robotic systems and equipment and know the different technologies available to create robots for specific applications. They have a strong foundation in computer systems and how computers are linked to robots. They also have an understanding of manufacturing production requirements and how robots can best be used in automated systems to achieve cost efficiency, productivity, and quality. Robotics engineers may analyze and evaluate a manufacturer’s operating system to determine whether robots can be used efficiently instead of other automated equipment or humans.
Many other types of engineers are also involved in the design, development, fabrication, programming, and operation of robots. Following are brief descriptions of these types of engineers and how they relate to robotics.
Electrical and electronics engineers research, design, and develop the electrical systems used in robots and the power supply, if it is electrical. These engineers may specialize in areas such as integrated circuit theory, lasers, electronic sensors, optical components, and energy power systems.
Mechanical engineers are involved in the design, fabrication, and operation of the mechanical systems of a robot. These engineers need a strong working knowledge of mechanical components such as gripper mechanisms, bearings, gears, chains, belts, and actuators. Some robots are controlled by pneumatic or mechanical power supplies, and these engineers need to be specialists in designing these systems. Mechanical engineers also select the material used to make robots. They test robots once they are constructed.
Computer engineers design the computer systems that are used to program robots. Sometimes these systems are built into a robot and other times they are a part of separate equipment that is used to control robots. Some computer engineers also write computer programs.
Industrial engineers are specialists in manufacturing operations. They determine the physical layout of a factory to best utilize production equipment. They may determine the placement of robotic equipment. They also are responsible for safety rules and practices and for ensuring that robotic equipment is used properly.
CAD/CAM engineers (computer-aided design/computer- aided manufacturing) are experts in automated production processes. They design and supervise manufacturing systems that utilize robots and other automated equipment.
Manufacturing engineers manage the entire production process. They may evaluate production operations to determine whether robots can be used in an assembly line and make recommendations on purchasing robotic equipment. Some manufacturing engineers design robots. Other engineers specialize in a specific area of robotics, such as artificial intelligence, vision systems, and sensor systems. These specialists are developing robots with “brains” that are similar to those of humans.
Robotics technicians assist in all phases of robotics engineering. They install, repair, and maintain finished robots. Others help design and develop new kinds of robotics equipment. Technicians who install, repair, and maintain robots and robotic equipment need knowledge of electronics, electrical circuitry, mechanics, pneumatics, hydraulics, and computer programming. They use hand and power tools, testing instruments, manuals, schematic diagrams, and blueprints.
Before installing new equipment, technicians review the work order and instructional information; verify that the intended site in the factory is correctly supplied with the necessary electrical wires, switches, circuit breakers, and other parts; position and secure the robot in place, sometimes using a crane or other large tools and equipment; and attach various cables and hoses, such as those that connect a hydraulic power unit with the robot. After making sure that the equipment is operational, technicians program the robot for specified tasks, using their knowledge of its programming language. They may write the detailed instructions that program robots or reprogram a robot when changes are needed.
Once robots are in place and functioning, they may develop problems. Technicians then test components and locate faulty parts. When the problem is found, they may replace or recalibrate parts. Sometimes they suggest changes in circuitry or programming, or may install different end-of-arm tools on robots to allow machines to perform new functions. They may train robotics operators in how to operate robots and related equipment and help establish in-house basic maintenance and repair programs at new installations.
Companies that only have a few robots don’t always hire their own robotics technicians. Instead they use robot field technicians who work for a robotic manufacturer. These technicians travel to manufacturing sites and other locations where robots are used to repair and service robots and robotic equipment.
Technicians involved with the design and development of new robotic devices are sometimes referred to as robotics design technicians. As part of a design team, they work closely with robotics engineers. The robotics design job starts as the engineers analyze the tasks and settings to be assigned and decide what kind of robotics system will best serve the necessary functions. Technicians involved with robot assembly, sometimes referred to as robot assemblers, commonly specialize in one aspect of robot assembly. Materials handling technicians receive requests for components or materials, then locate and deliver them to the technicians doing the actual assembly or those performing tests on these materials or components. Mechanical assembly technicians put together components and subsystems and install them in the robot. Electrical assembly technicians do the same work as mechanical assembly technicians but specialize in electrical components such as circuit boards and automatic switching devices. Finally, some technicians test the finished assemblies to make sure the robot conforms to the original specifications.
Other kinds of robotics technicians include robot operators, who operate robots in specialized settings, and robotics trainers, who train other employees in the installation, use, and maintenance of robots.
Robotics technicians may also be referred to as electromechanical technicians, manufacturing technicians, robot mechanics, robotics repairmen, robot service technicians, and installation robotics technicians.
Robotics Engineer and Technician Career Requirements
In high school, you should take as many science, math, and computer classes as possible. Recommended courses are biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, graphics, computer science, English, speech, composition, social studies, and drafting. In addition, take shop and vocational classes that teach blueprint and electrical schematic reading, the use of hand tools, drafting, and the basics of electricity and electronics.
Because changes occur so rapidly within this field, it is often recommended that engineers and technicians get a broad-based education that encompasses robotics but does not focus solely on robotics. Programs that provide the widest career base are those in automated manufacturing, which includes robotics, electronics, and computer science.
In order to become an engineer it is necessary to earn a bachelor of science degree, which generally takes four or five years to complete. More than 400 colleges and universities offer courses in robotics or related technology. Many different types of programs are available. Some colleges and universities offer robotics engineering degrees and others offer engineering degrees with concentrations or options in robotics and manufacturing engineering. For some higher-level jobs, such as robotics designer, a master of science or doctoral degree is required. Carnegie Mellon University has an extensive robotics program and offers an undergraduate minor, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in robotics.
Although the minimum educational requirement for a robotics technician is a high school diploma, many employers prefer to hire technicians who have received formal training beyond high school. Two-year programs are available in community colleges and technical institutes that grant an associate’s degree in robotics. The armed forces also offer technical programs that result in associate’s degrees in electronics, biomedical equipment, and computer science. The military uses robotics and other advanced equipment and offers excellent training opportunities to members of the armed forces. This training is highly regarded by many employers and can be an advantage in obtaining a civilian job in robotics.
Because the field of robotics is rapidly changing, one of the most important requirements for a person interested in a career in robotics is the willingness to pursue additional training on an ongoing basis during his or her career. After completing their formal education, engineers and technicians may need to take additional classes in a college or university or take advantage of training offered through their employers and professional associations. Robotics technicians need manual dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, and mechanical and electrical aptitude.
Exploring Robotics Engineer and Technician Career
Because robotics is a relatively new field, it is important to learn as much as possible about current trends and recent technologies. Reading books and articles in trade magazines provides an excellent way to learn about what is happening in robotics technologies and expected future trends. Trade magazines with informative articles include Robotics Engineering, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, and Personal Robotics Magazine.
You can become a robot hobbyist and build your own robots or buy toy robots and experiment with them. Complete robot kits are available through a number of companies and range from simple, inexpensive robots to highly complex robots with advanced features and accessories. A number of books that give instructions and helpful hints on building robots can be found at most public libraries and bookstores. In addition, relatively inexpensive and simple toy robots are available from electronics shops, department stores, and mail order companies.
You can also participate in competitions. The Robotic Technology and Engineering Challenge is an amateur robotics competition open to middle school through university-level students. Fourteen different contests challenge students in areas such as problem-solving skills, robot construction, and teamwork ability. Check the Web site of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, which used to sponsor the competition, for more information. Another annual competition, the International Aerial Robotics Competition, is sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. This competition, which requires teams of students to build complex robots, is open to college students.
Robotic Autonomy is a new summer robotics camp offered by Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with NASA/Ames Research Center. The course will introduce high school juniors and seniors to the electronics, mechanics, and computer science of robotics during the summer. See http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~robocamp/ for details or visit http://robotics.arc.nasa.gov/ for robotics information and activities.
Another great way to learn about robotics is to attend trade shows. Many robotics and automated machinery manufacturers exhibit their products at shows and conventions. Numerous such trade shows are held every year in different parts of the country. Information about these trade shows is available through association trade magazines and periodicals such as Managing Automation.
Other activities that foster knowledge and skills relevant to a career in robotics include membership in high school science clubs, participation in science fairs, and pursuing hobbies that involve electronics, mechanical equipment, and model building.
Robotics engineers and technicians are employed in virtually every manufacturing industry. With the trend toward automation continuing—often via the use of robots—people trained in robotics can expect to find employment with almost all types of manufacturing companies in the future.
In the past, most people entered robotics technician positions from positions as automotive workers, machinists, millwrights, computer repair technicians, and computer operators. Companies retrained them to troubleshoot and repair robots rather than hire new workers. Although this still occurs today, there are many more opportunities for formal education and training specifically in robotics engineering, and robotics manufacturers are more likely to hire graduates of robotics programs, both at the technician and engineer levels.
Graduates of two- and four-year programs may learn about available openings through their schools’ job placement services. It also may be possible to learn about job openings through want ads in newspapers and trade magazines.
In many cases, it will be necessary to research companies that manufacture or use robots and apply directly to them. The organizations listed below may offer publications with classified ads, or other job search information.
Job opportunities may be good at small start-up companies or a start-up robotics unit of a large company. Many times these employers are willing to hire inexperienced workers as apprentices or assistants. Then, when their sales and production grow, these workers have the best chances for advancement.
Other places to search for employment include your college’s job placement services, advertisements in professional magazines and newspapers, or job fairs.
Engineers may start as part of an engineering team and do relatively simple tasks under the supervision of a project manager or more experienced engineer. With experience and demonstrated competency, they can move into higher engineering positions. Engineers who demonstrate good interpersonal skills, leadership abilities, and technical expertise may become team leaders, project managers, or chief engineers. Engineers can also move into supervisory or management positions. Some engineers pursue an MBA (master of business administration) degree. These engineers are able to move into top management positions. Some engineers also develop specialties, such as artificial intelligence, and move into highly specialized engineering positions.
After several years on the job, robotics technicians who have demonstrated their ability to handle more responsibility may be assigned some supervisory work or, more likely, will train new technicians. Experienced technicians and engineers may teach courses at their workplace or find teaching opportunities at a local school or community college.
Other routes for advancement include becoming a sales representative for a robotics manufacturing or design firm or working as an independent contractor for companies that use or manufacture robots.
With additional training and education, such as a bachelor’s degree, technicians can become eligible for positions as robotics engineers.
Earnings and benefits in manufacturing companies vary widely based on the size of the company, geographic location, nature of the production process, and complexity of the robots. In general, engineers with a bachelor of science degree earn annual salaries between $46,000 and $55,000 in their first job after graduation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings of mechanical engineers were $66,320 in 2004. Median annual earnings of computer hardware engineers were $68,150, and median annual earnings of electronics engineers, except computer, were $75,770. All of these engineers can earn annual salaries well over $100,000 with increased experience and responsibility.
Robotics technicians who are graduates of a two-year robotics program earn between $26,000 and $35,000 a year. With increased training and experience, technicians can earn $50,000 or more.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median annual earnings of electrical and electronics engineering technicians were $46,310 in 2004, and the average annual salary for mechanical engineering technicians was $43,400. Technicians with considerable experience and a college degree can earn $67,900 or more.
Employers offer a variety of benefits that can include the following: paid holidays, vacations, personal days, and sick leave; medical, dental, disability, and life insurance; 401(k) plans, pension and retirement plans; profit sharing; and educational assistance programs.
Robotics engineers and technicians may work either for a company that manufactures robots or a company that uses robots. Most companies that manufacture robots are relatively clean, quiet, and comfortable environments. Engineers and technicians may work in an office or on the production floor. A large number of robotics manufacturers are found in California, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, Texas, British Columbia, and Ontario, although companies exist in many other states and parts of Canada.
Engineers and technicians who work in a company that uses robots may work in noisy, hot, and dirty surroundings. Conditions vary based on the type of industry within which one works. Automobile manufacturers use a significant number of robots, as do manufacturers of electronics components and consumer goods and the metalworking industry. Workers in a foundry work around heavy equipment and in hot and dirty environments. Workers in the electronics industry generally work in very clean and quiet environments. Some robotics personnel are required to work in clean room environments, which keep electronic components free of dirt and other contaminants. Workers in these environments wear facemasks, hair coverings, and special protective clothing.
Some engineers and technicians may confront potentially hazardous conditions in the workplace. Robots, after all, are often designed and used precisely because the task they perform involves some risk to humans: handling laser beams, arc-welding equipment, radioactive substances, or hazardous chemicals. When they design, test, build, install, and repair robots, it is inevitable that some engineers and technicians will be exposed to these same risks. Plant safety procedures protect the attentive and cautious worker, but carelessness in such settings can be especially dangerous.
In general, most technicians and engineers work 40- hour workweeks, although overtime may be required for special projects or to repair equipment that is shutting down a production line. Some technicians, particularly those involved in maintenance and repairs, may work shifts that include evening, late night, or weekend work.
Field service technicians travel to manufacturing sites to repair robots. Their work may involve extensive travel and overnight stays. They may work at several sites in one day or stay at one location for an extended period for more difficult repairs.
Robotics Engineer and Technician Career Outlook
Employment opportunities for robotics engineers and technicians are closely tied to economic conditions in the United States and in the global marketplace. The Robotics Industry Association (RIA) reports that the robotics market declined 30 percent in the first quarter of 2006, primarily due to economic difficulties in the automotive industry. However, sales of robots to non-automotive industries like food, consumer goods, and pharmaceuticals actually increased. The area of promising growth are material handling robots that handle payloads greater than 10 pounds and for arc-welding robots, both of which declined less than the industry average. RIA estimates that some 160,000 robots are now working in U.S. factories, making the United States the world’s second largest robotics user, next to Japan.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts the fields of mechanical, electronics, and computer hardware engineering will grow as fast as the average occupation through 2014. Jobs opportunities for engineering technicians should be slightly better, however, growing at an average rate. Competition for both engineering and technician jobs with be stiff, and opportunities will be best for those that have advanced degrees.
The use of industrial robots is expected to grow as robots become more programmable and flexible and as manufacturing processes become more automated. Growth is also expected in nontraditional applications, such as education, health care, security, and nonindustrial purposes. Future employment in robotics will depend on future demand for new applications, as well as available capital to spend on research and development.