Robots have a wide variety of use cases that make them the ideal technology for the future. Soon, we will see robots almost everywhere. We’ll see them in hospitals, hotels and even on roads.
The manufacturing industry is probably the oldest and most well-known user of robots. These robots and co-bots (bots that work alongside humans) work to efficiently test and assemble products, like cars and industrial equipment. It’s estimated that there are more than three million industrial robots in use right now.
Shipping, handling and quality control robots are becoming a must-have for most retailers and logistics companies. Because we now expect our packages to arrive at blazing speeds, logistics companies employ robots in warehouses, and even on the road, to help maximize time efficiency. Right now, there are robots taking your items off the shelves, transporting them across the warehouse floor and packaging them. Additionally, a rise in last-mile robots (robots that will autonomously deliver your package to your door) ensure that you’ll have a face-to-metal-face encounter with a logistics bot in the near future.
It’s not science fiction anymore. Robots can be seen all over our homes, helping with chores, reminding us of our schedules and even entertaining our kids. The most well-known example of home robots is the autonomous vacuum cleaner Roomba. Additionally, robots have now evolved to do everything from autonomously mowing grass to cleaning pools.
Is there anything more science fiction-like than autonomous vehicles? These self-driving cars are no longer just imagination. A combination of data science and robotics, self-driving vehicles are taking the world by storm. Companies like Tesla, Ford, Waymo, Volkswagen and BMW are all working on the next wave of travel that will let us sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft are also developing autonomous rideshare vehicles that don’t require humans to operate the vehicle.
Robots have made enormous strides in the healthcare industry. These mechanical marvels have use in just about every aspect of healthcare, from robot-assisted surgeries to bots that help humans recover from injury in physical therapy. Examples of robots at work in healthcare are Toyota’s healthcare assistants, which help people regain the ability to walk, and TUG, a robot designed to autonomously stroll throughout a hospital and deliver everything from medicines to clean linens.
Robots have been employed by pharmaceutical companies to help the fight against COVID-19. These bots are now being used to fill and seal COVID-19 testing swabs, and are also being used by some manufacturers to produce PPE and respirators.
Arobotics engineer designs, builds and tests robots and robotic platforms. They work in a wide range of industries too. For instance, robotics engineers may design robots that work alongside humans in factories or in other sectors like hospitality and healthcare, build tiny robots for biomedical use cases like monitoring and treating disease, or maintain robots and develop software so robots can operate autonomously.
A robotics engineer designs, builds and tests robots and robotic platforms. Robotics engineers typically need to be skilled in math and be curious about the world around them.
There are many reasons why someone might become a robotics engineer. For some, it’s so they can say they had a hand in the future. Others may just like to create new things and challenge themselves to find solutions to complicated puzzles, like how to develop a robotic hand that can grasp objects much like humans are able to do.
But for some robotics engineers, like Jinxing Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Michigan State University, their interest in pursuing robotics is more philosophical.
“Building something which can replicate ourselves or other creatures is an intrinsic desire of human beings,” Li told Built In. “As a result, mother nature is always the biggest inspiration to build robotics.”
For Li, whose work has focused on the development of microrobots (essentially tiny robots that have the potential to treat disease and infection), robotics is not only a means to “understand ourselves as life” — it’s also a way to save lives.
Robotics engineers design, build, test and maintain robots, which are systems and machines programmed to replicate or substitute human actions. Robotics engineers often work with other engineers, developers, product managers and other stakeholders to get the job done.
They also work in many different industries, building all kinds of robots ranging from autonomous mobile robots to collaborative robots that work alongside humans in warehouses.
They might also build robots that print skin — like the one Deanna Hood, a robotics engineer in Australia, helped develop for patients who have skin burns.
“It was both rewarding and fascinating to work alongside surgeons to design a product to save patients’ lives,” Hood told Built In. “Especially because I go to do it using robots, coding and other technology that I love.”
Not all robotics engineers have such a direct impact on the health and well-being of other humans, like Hood and Li do. Some are working behind-the-scenes to get autonomous vehicles on the road or helping develop humanoid robots that can mow our lawns. Others are designing robots that can grab a specific product from a warehouse shelf, or working on social robots that can interact with humans.
When it comes to day-to-day responsibilities of a robotics engineer, they can range anywhere from writing grant proposals to collaborating with design and product teams. Additional robotics engineer job duties typically include:
In Hood’s case, the average day may also involve coming up with answers to seemingly impossible questions, like: How do you ensure the robot you’re working on knows exactly where to print new skin on a patient?
“In general, I develop the ‘brains’ of new and innovative devices used by doctors, occupational therapists and biomedical researchers,” Hood said. “On the skin-printing robot, my focus was the ‘thinking’ problems that would allow the robot to quickly deliver 3D bioprinted regenerative cell therapy onto the patient’s wound, no matter what shape the wound is.”
There’s not one single academic path into robotics engineering, though some disciplines are more popular entryways into the field than others. The most common degrees for a robotics engineer include:
When Hood was a child, she was into math, so much so that she skipped two grades in high school. She began college at 15 and majored in the subject, adding electrical engineering as a double major. From there she went on to receive her masters degree in robotics and computer vision.
As a student, Li also pursued electrical engineering, with the goal of one day making computer chips smaller and faster, he said. With semiconductor companies dominating the industry, he soon realized there weren’t many opportunities for researchers to have an impact.
As a result, he went on to receive his PhD in nano-engineering, focusing on micro- and nano-scale robotics. Before getting into robotics, Li admits wishing he had been more skilled at coding. Coding, or programming, is what brings a robot to life, making it so they can perform the tasks they were designed to do.
If you’re just entering the robotics engineering field, Hood suggests starting small and doing “things people can’t stop you from doing,” she said.
She adds that online courses — think offerings from the likes of Coursera — as well as simulations, events, volunteering and contributing to open source projects like ROS, which she contributed to, are good actions to take.
“All of these things have helped build my technical ability, as well as valuable connections to the people that make the robotics industry happen,” Hood said.
Acquiring both hard and soft skills is necessary for aspiring robotics engineers. These skills include:
When Hood worked on the skin printing robot, it wasn’t a solitary mission or a single team of robotics engineers that developed it — she worked with a group of people from industrial designers to make it user-friendly to surgeons who provided feedback on those designs.
“Collaboration on devices like that is a necessity,” she said.
And for Li, too, much of his day, outside the classroom, consists of collaborating on projects and fueling his curiosity.
“In the evening, I will sit quietly for a few hours reading and learning new publications and tech advances,” he said. “For me, it is the most relaxing moment to brainstorm new and wild ideas.”
Jordan Sun, vice president of product at Softbank Robotics, spends his workday working with product and engineering teams to ensure the company’s robots, like their cobot, Whiz, are up and running. When it comes to the robotics engineers he collaborates with, he’s witnessed an evolution of sorts when it comes to skill set — basically, they’re not so singularly focused on one platform or functionality.
The industry is more complex now, he said. He and his team have to ensure that they don’t make things harder for their customers, but generate value by neutralizing pain points, while making sure the robot continues to work in a stable and safe way.
“I really want folks to have a breadth of experience and knowledge, in terms of not just working with one type of platform, but across platforms,” Sun told Built In. “There’s so much to be learned beyond just working on a robotic arm to also having some experience and autonomy, whether it’s outdoor, or indoor, or having experience working with software engineers, or as a software engineer, and computer scientists.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for mechanical engineers, a related profession, is expected to grow 2 percent from 2021 to 2031. The Bureau also estimates that roughly 17,900 mechanical engineer roles will open up each year.
While the career options for robotics engineers can vary from teaching to the development of robots and robotic platforms on both the hardware and software sides — or a mix of both — the types of projects robotics engineers can choose to work on is almost limitless.
Collaborative robotics is one area that seems to be experiencing growth, as companies working in logistics and other industries like manufacturing increasingly turn to cobots, and other types of robots, to automate tedious tasks and fill gaps in the labor market. According to Sun, of Softbank Robotics, cobots are getting a lot of attention right now.
“I think the market’s only going to get more interesting as various SaaS players enter this space,” Sun said. “Not just hardware players.”
Autonomous vehicles are another area where robotics engineers can have an impact, as well as agriculture and construction.
And if you want to help other people like those who work in healthcare and education do, you don’t have to become a teacher or doctor. “Technology is what underpins innovation in all of these industries today,” Hood said. “And as a result, the world actually needs altruistic technologists, too.”
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