n a spotless, high-ceilinged white room that looks more like a laboratory than a factory, 10 mechanics and technicians from General Electric Co. and the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Group of United Technologies Corp. are learning how to use the new tools of their trade.
Thick technical manuals are piled on tables. Pieces of disassembled machines clutter the floor. On a table in the corner, an armlike steel projection, painted bright orange, moves, stops, climbs, descends and turns over in response to commands programmed into a cassette tape.
"We're not just some guys off the street. We're trained technicians, but there is still a lot to learn," says Nicholas Toretta, a master mechanic at Pratt and Whitney. "That thing moves at incredible speed, and it's relentless."
The "thing" is an industrial robot, a tool as far removed from wrench and blowtorch as the computer is from the adding machine. Toretta and his colleagues, whose employers have ordered robots for their production lines, are learning how to operate, program and maintain them. The training is provided by ASEA Inc., the U.S. arm of the Swedish industrial giant that is becoming a major supplier of robots to the U.S. market.
"Operating a robot is like driving a car," says Joseph Bianco, training director at ASEA's facility here. "It's easy to talk about it, but once you put a person in there, it's different."
"We have no prerequisites," Bianco said. "The students in this course could be degreed engineers or working technicians." But the students say the work is difficult because it requires an adjustment of their entire concept of the workplace--"complete retraining," one said.
It's not just the technical adjustment to metric measurements, European symbols in the manuals and tools that measure force in Newtons instead of foot-pounds that complicates the training. It's the need to understand the complexities of the tool itself, its potential functions in the manufacturing process, and the relationship of the robots to the human beings in the factory.
In two weeks the students learn everything from basic functions of the robot, such as picking up and putting down objects, to the machine's inner workings so they can take it apart and put it back together, according to Bianco.
"Robots are new to industry," says ASEA President Arne Mark. "It is essential that people know what they can do with them and what they can expect. They have to be as familiar with these animals as possible."
The reference to "animals" is Mark's little joke. The kind of robot he is talking about is not an imitation human, an R2D2, but a sophisticated tool that is rapidly becoming a prominent feature of the industrial work place. The training program here, in which almost all of ASEA's customers participate, is part of ASEA's efforts to increase its share of a growing market.
In total sales ASEA is a small force in the $150-million-a-year U.S. market for industrial robots, far behind the Unimation division of Condec and Cincinnati Milacron, which between them have 70 percent of the market. But Mark said ASEA's robots are "the most sophisticated and the most expensive," and ASEA aims to challenge the leaders when a new factory opens near Milwaukee next year and it no longer needs to import its robots from Sweden. "There is an exciting future for robots here in the U.S.," Mark said.
The kind of training that the technicians and engineers from the automobile, electronic, appliance and engine factories undergo in programs such as ASEA's is as much a part of the change in the industrial work place as the introduction of the machines themselves.
The robots do tedious, boring, dangerous and exhausting jobs that once were performed by human beings of the blue-collar and lunch pail work force. In the words of Bengt Johanssen, an instructor here, "Robots don't displace workers; they require them to do different kinds of jobs."
An industrial robot is not a toy. As defined by the Robot Institute of America, it is "a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools or specialized devices through variable motions for the performance of a variety of tasks." Depending on the kind of tool or bit that is attached to the robot's operating "wrist," the machine can paint, grind, polish, lift, insert, cut, drill, weld, dip pieces into liquid, select, discard and stack.
Equipped with laser beams or television cameras, the most advanced models can "see" or "feel" to perform specialized tasks such as smoothing the inside of forged parts or selecting among objects of varying sizes. They can perform more than one function in a sequence, moving and stopping in endless precision with no human hand at the controls.
Students at ASEA's training facility said retraining not only can save jobs as robots enter the factory but also improve the working conditions on the shop floor. In response to a question about potential job losses, they called over Johanssen, their Swedish instructor, and nodded in agreement as he argued that robots are good for the work force.
"In Sweden the trade unions have actually demanded the installation of more robots, because they do the jobs the workers don't want to do, and they always do it right," he said.
ASEA engineers demonstrated a robot they have programmed to do a job that they said would be both tedious and dangerous for a human being. The robot picks up forged steel parts for Volkswagen brake assemblies, rejects those not precisely the right size, moves them to a polishing wheel that smooths the outside, transfers them to another grinding wheel that "deburrs" or smooths the inside, and then stacks them in a box, ready for shipment. The robot can perform the same tasks endlessly, ignoring the noise and flying sparks and metal shards, for about 40,000 hours, they said.
According to a recent consultant's report to Congress' Office of Technology Assessment, nearly 3,300 such machines are in use in U.S. factories, largely in the autombile industry. Japan, which leads the world in production and use of the robots, has about 10,000 on line.
"There is no doubt that robots will revolutionize the work place," said the report by Eli S. Lustgarten of Paine Webber Mitchell Hutchins Inc. The report said that the technology of the machines is far more advanced than the understanding of the implications of robots on "the social system of the factory."
Noting estimates that "upwards of 20 million industrial jobs around the world could be replaced by robots," Lustgarten wrote that "retraining is the major social problem created by rapid robotization, not unemployment." He said that "the jobs created by widespread use of robots and unmanned manufacturing -- programmers, technicians, engineers -- for the most part require a high degree of technical training," unlike the jobs of the welders and painters they replace. As a result, "Massive training programs will be needed to prevent the creation of an oversupply of workers whose skills have become obsolete and simultaneous shortages of engineers and technicians."
Industrial labor unions are understandably apprehensive about the impact of robotization on their members. Mark, ASEA's president, argues that "robots have created more new jobs than they have eliminated. The question is, what happens to jobs and workers if we don't go to robots in this country? The Japanese and Europeans are advancing, and American industry has to compete."
A sophisticated robot can cost more than $100,000. Mark said he has not heard any reliable figures on how much they save or how much they increase productivity.