The use of surgical robots in operating rooms around the world is potentially on the cusp of dramatic growth. Indeed, within five years, one in three U.S. surgeries—more than double current levels—is expected to be performed by surgeons sitting at computer consoles guiding robotic arms, according to data from Intuitive Surgical, a pioneer in robotic surgery, a Reuters story reports. Doctors say use of the robotics reduces their fatigue and offers greater precision.


Although surgical robots, such as Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci machines, cost $1.5 million on average and require on-going maintenance, insurers pay no more for surgeries that use the systems than for other types of minimally-invasive procedures. Even so, most top U.S. hospitals for cancer treatment, urology, gynecology and gastroenterology have made the investment in robotics. The robots are used in hernia repair, bariatric surgery, hysterectomies and the vast majority of prostate removals in the U.S., according to Intuitive Surgical data. What’s more, the robots are featured prominently in hospital marketing campaigns aimed at attracting patients, and new doctors are routinely trained in their use, Reuters reports.


In other robotics news, Ford Motor Company announced it’s testing how human workers and robots may collaborate to manufacture vehicles. New collaborative robots, known as co-bots, are being used to help workers at Ford’s assembly plant in Cologne, Germany, fit shock absorbers to Fiesta cars. Developed over two years, the robot program was carried out in close partnership with German robot manufacturer, KUKA Roboter GmbH.


“Robots are helping make tasks easier, safer and quicker, complementing our employees with abilities that open up unlimited worlds of production and design for new Ford models,” says Karl Anton, director, vehicle operations, Ford of Europe.


Measuring just over three feet high, the new robots work side-by-side with line workers at two work stations. Rather than manipulate a heavy shock absorber and installation tool, workers can now use the robot to lift and automatically position the shock absorber into the wheel arch, before pushing a button to complete installation, Ford explains. To ensure human worker safety, the co-bots are equipped with high-tech sensors that stop action immediately if they detect a human arm or even a hand in their path.


“Working overhead with heavy air-powered tools is a tough job that requires strength, stamina and accuracy,” says Ngali Bongongo, a production worker at Ford’s Cologne plant. “The robot is a real help.”


The news from Intuitive Surgical and Ford remind me of a report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company earlier this month, which explains the firm’s forecast for the impact of automation on most jobs. While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail, according to the report.


McKinsey broke down U.S. labor tasks into three categories: those highly susceptible to automation, those less-susceptible and those least susceptible. Among the most vulnerable are tasks involving physical activities or operation of machinery in predictable environments, work which makes up almost 20 percent of U.S. labor activity. Risk of automation for those tasks is 78 percent, according to McKinsey.


“Since predictable physical activities figure prominently in sectors such as manufacturing, food service and accommodations, and retailing, these are the most susceptible to automation based on technical considerations alone,” the report notes.


What are your thoughts on the growing use of robotics? How will their use have an impact on your company and others in the supply chain?