Humans Play a Key Role in Automated Robotic Systems

As robotics assume a larger role in manufacturing, author and MIT professor David Mindell focuses on the critical role humans play in automation.

The rise of automated and robotic-driven manufacturing has changed the way many suppliers view production, but it hasn’t made the human touch obsolete just yet.

“The people are always going to be there in one way or another,” says David Mindell, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The more we think about that, the better off we’re going to be when we design these systems.”

Mindell’s book, Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy, highlights the importance of integrating people into automated systems. According to Mindell, the technologies expanding and transforming the capabilities of robotics will do the same for people, allowing the two to evolve together.

“Sometimes [robots] actually increase the human workload, sometimes they reduce it, but very rarely do they come in as a substitute for a human task,” Mindell says.


Collaboration between robotics and humans in manufacturing is beginning to gain steam. For example, when a human and a robot are working on a collaborative assembly task, they can alternate putting parts onto a system.

“The robot can hand the human a tool, …work on an area that the human is not working on, or the robotic work can be rescheduled when a human comes in and the robot stays out of the way,” Mindell says.

Direct human input in the manufacturing process isn’t going away anytime soon, as issues in areas such as dexterity, precision fitting and assembly orientation just make people a better fit for some jobs. Prohibitive costs are another factor in hastening a complete robot takeover.

“There are certain industries that just don’t have the volume to put the capital into all robots, all the time,” Mindell says. “And the robots are going to be able to do things that people do, but people still have to design those systems, put them somewhere and figure out what the task is.”

Professor Mindell will dig deeper into the role of robotics and automated systems at Chief Executive’s Smart Manufacturing Summit on May 17 in Seattle as part of a panel discussion with Sujeet Chand of Rockwell Automation and Herb Lade of Cognex. For more information and to register, visit To learn more about Professor Mindell’s work, click here. To order his book on Amazon click here.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    We are in a period of rapid change. Customer needs, technologies, competitors and internal capabilities require companies to review and update their strategies for the new realities. In this workshop, strategy experts Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison will show you a systematic approach to strategic planning to help you refine or redefine your business strategy and approach including:

    • Learn what you need to know to develop an effective strategic plan. Put the right players on the strategic planning team.
    • Develop strategies that leverage your company’s unique position in the marketplace. Lift your management team beyond “business as usual” thought processes and activities.
    • Translate your strategies into action. Achieve your vision for success and generate superior financial results.
    • Identify exactly what you need to do now to position your company for future success.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.