Robotics is moving into its next growth phase. Last year, the industrial robotics market was $1.4 billion, compared to $615 million in 1995. The United States ranks third in robot sales (industrial and personal) behind Japan and western European countries (Germany leads). But according to trade organization Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the use of robots in the electronics industry should grow an average of 35 percent per year over the next several years.

This rapid growth, spurred by several recent advancements in the industry, could propel robotics into the IT career spotlight. In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the robotics industry, and I’ll tell you how and why you should break into a career in robotics.

Categories of robots
Think of robotics as carved up into four broad categories, defined by function: industrial robots, personal robots, robots for medical or surgical use, and autonomous robots. Of these, the largest category is industrial robots, which are simple, programmable robots used in manufacturing plants for welding, painting, and feeding components into machines. These robots are not “smart”: If the assembly line breaks down, the robots will keep on aimlessly moving, accomplishing nothing. They’re not capable of reacting to change.

The second category is personal robots, most of which are basically just expensive, high-tech toys. Sony sells the Aibo ERS-210, an odd-looking, three-pound metallic dog capable of limited voice recognition. The Honda Motor Company touts Robopal, a two-foot-tall home-security robot that patrols your home, walks up and down stairs, and senses danger with ultraviolet sensors.

Robots used in the medical field have been the source of major breakthroughs. T.J. Tarn, a professor of systems science and mathematics and director of the Center for Robotics and Automation at Washington University in St. Louis, says that one of the most exciting recent developments is the medical profession’s use of robots during surgery. Surgical robots, for example, can do everything from tying sutures to moving cameras in response to spoken commands.

The fourth category, autonomous robots, is touted as the “next generation” in robotics, according to David Smith, vice president of technology consulting firm Technology Futures in Austin, TX. Unlike the programmable robots, autonomous robots make decisions and can even determine right from wrong. Most of them are being developed at universities such as Carnegie Mellon University and MIT. Kismet, developed at MIT, is a thinking robot capable of socializing with people and eliciting emotions like surprise, happiness, disgust, and anger.

Breaking into a career in robotics
The recent growth of the industry signals that now is a good time to investigate career opportunities in robotics. Robotics companies need a host of talents, including programmers, systems engineers, technicians, database and simulation experts, and industrial engineers.

Check out companies making robotic products—ABB Flexible Automation, iRobot Corporation, Mobot, Inc., Motoman, Inc., Pyxis Corporation, and Gecko Systems, Inc., to name a few—to learn about the kinds of jobs they’re offering. Also, visit the Robotic Industries Web site and The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University for any listings or ongoing projects.

Steve Eckert, director of engineering at ABB Flexible Automation, a manufacturer of industrial robots and robotic systems in New Berlin, WI, says it is difficult to find techies with robotics experience. Carl Traynor, director of marketing at Motoman, Inc., a robot manufacturer in West Carrollton, OH, agrees. “It’s a small but incestuous industry, where there is a lot of movement of techies between customers, suppliers, and other manufacturers.”

How will the growth of this industry affect you?

If the use of robots in the electronics industry grows an average of 35 percent a year over the next several years, how will your enterprise be affected? Will changes in manufacturing processes alter your business? Will processes in your industry other than manufacturing be automated? Let us know by posting a comment below.