Robots open world of opportunities for A3 president

April 26, 2023
Jeff Burnstein, who leads the Association for Advancing Automation, believes robot applications will continue to expand, including in the home.

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By Karen Hanna 

Primitive technology — in the form of a typewriter — blocked Jeff Burnstein from pursuing his initial career goals, but robotic innovations have taken him places the English major probably never imagined as a student at the University of Michigan. 

As the president of the Association for Advancing Automation, he’s now in his fifth decade working with automation. Later this month, he’ll celebrate one of the highest accolades available to someone in that field — as the recipient of the Joseph F. Engelberger Robotics Award, which is presented to individuals for excellence in technology development, application, education and leadership in the robotics industry.  

As he posted on his LinkedIn account, “After 40 years in robotics, I have seized the Brass Ring! There is no higher honor than the Engelberger Award, and I'm over the moon to be receiving it on May 24 in Detroit during the #automateshow. ....” 

Burnstein recently shared insights about his career with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Senior Reporter Karen Hanna. 

Considering that you were an English major, what led you to a career in robotics? 

Burnstein: After college, my first job was promoting downtown Detroit for the Central Business District Association (CBDA), and I loved it.  I learned everything I needed to know there about working with business owners, the press, government officials, selling exhibits and other activities I’m still involved in today.  After CBDA I went to an ad agency and hated it! That was a poor choice and didn’t work out, so I needed a job and ended up at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), which had some really cool activities related to robots.

At that time, they had not one but two robotics groups: Robotics International (RI/SME) and the Robot Institute of America (RIA). I quickly realized that there was a need for someone who could essentially translate what the technical people told me (which I couldn’t understand since I have no technical background) in order to explain [it] to the press, public, policy makers and company leaders who wanted to understand how robotics would impact their lives and businesses and why it mattered. Robotics was going to be the “next industrial revolution,” it was exciting, and I was working on promoting the Robots Show in Detroit, which was very large and well-attended. RIA then broke away from SME to form its own trade association.   

When RIA split away from SME, I joined it to be their PR manager. I felt my background was perfectly suited for the role; 40 years later, I still feel the same way! [Eventually, A3 grew out of RIA and other legacy associations.]  

You had no technical background. How did you catch on?  

Burnstein: I learned about robotics by focusing not on the technology itself, but on the importance of it.  What value did robots offer companies? What could robots do in our daily lives? What impacts would robots have on jobs? Why should robots matter to policy makers and the general public?  

When did you realize you had become a robotics expert?  

Burnstein: I guess I realized I had become an expert in robotics trends and their impacts on society when organizations started inviting me to give presentations at events throughout the U.S., as well as in China, Japan, Germany, Denmark and other countries.  

Prior to getting involved with robotics, what had you envisioned doing as an English major? 

Burnstein: My plan was to be a sportswriter or public relations professional. I actually was hired to be a sportswriter for a weekly newspaper, but, since they only had a manual typewriter, I didn’t want to do it. (I had been trained in high school on an IBM Selectric).  

You've been in robotics over 40 years. How do the technologies we have today compare to what you might have envisioned in the early 1980s? 

Burnstein: That’s a tough question, since I’m not sure what I envisioned when I started in terms of the technologies. What I did envision was possible applications in a wide range of industries, not just automotive, which accounted for 70 percent or so of robot orders when I started. This eventually happened, as now every industry is looking at how to adopt robotics. However, I also envisioned personal and service robots that would be in our homes, businesses and daily lives. In fact, I even helped launch associations and events to try and further this vision. Sadly, this hasn’t happened anywhere near as fast as I thought it would, and we still have a long way to go. 

How has automation changed the industrial/manufacturing landscape over the past 40 years? 

Burnstein: Companies in every industry have found ways to use robots to boost productivity, improve product quality, reduce costs and get their products to customers faster. At the same time, many people have been freed from the “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs they don’t want to do and shouldn’t have to do. We’ll continue to see these positive impacts in a wider range of industries than ever before going forward, especially in industries just beginning their robotics journey, such as agriculture, construction and retail. 

What are the big advances to come?  

Burnstein: I still think we can make advances in robots in our homes and daily lives. Right now, we have one type of useful product inside our homes: vacuum cleaners. That’s not enough. We have some lawnmowers, I suppose, and robots that deliver things to us in hotels and restaurants, but these are still not widely used. Also, as our population ages, we have a need for robots in elder-care applications so we can keep people of sound mind but with weakening bodies in their homes longer, so they don’t have to go into assisted-living facilities or nursing homes. 

For instance, when will [we] be able to have more robots in our home to assist in caring for us when we get older, or to do everyday tasks such as cooking, doing the laundry, etc.? There are incredibly hard technical challenges in the home environment that don’t exist in the structured environment of a warehouse or factory. It will take improvements in vision, artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies to make progress in home robots. But I hope to see these advances in my lifetime. 

What's holding back those advances? 

Burnstein: The main reason we don’t have more robots in our homes is because these are unstructured environments with stairways, children, pets and other objects to navigate. Could we solve all of the technical problems and make sure the robots were safe enough to do things like prepare and/or deliver meals to us, help us get into the bathtub and bed, and be companions for us?  Probably, but it’s taking a lot longer than I imagined. 

What’s impressed or surprised you most, in thinking of the changes you’ve witnessed?  

Burnstein: One thing is the rapid pace at which China has adopted robotics and how they have a clear national strategy to not only be the world’s largest user of robots but also the world’s largest supplier. China wasn’t even on my radar until 2006 or so, but I ended up giving keynote talks in China multiple times in the years preceding [the] COVID [-19 pandemic]. 

What has China done to become a leader in this area? Are there any lessons for the U.S. government or companies in the approach China has taken?  

Burnstein: China recognized that they had won a great deal of manufacturing based on low-cost labor.  But, as their labor costs increased, they understood they might be vulnerable to Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries with lower costs. Plus, in a globally competitive world, low cost isn’t enough. You have to have high productivity and quality and get your products to market fast. Robots could help them achieve all of those goals, so their government made automating a priority. As a result, China has become the world’s largest user of robots and aspires to be the world’s largest supplier. I think there are lessons here for the USA and other countries. Providing incentives for companies to automate has value and should be a part of a national strategy to become a more competitive nation. 

What approach should manufacturers take in regard to adopting automation? Adopt early? Sit and wait? What works?  

Burnstein: We believe companies should “start smart,” in other words, by automating tasks that have a high likelihood of success. Then, after that, they will have the experience and confidence to automate more tasks. But waiting is not a good strategy, and in most cases, automating everything all at once is problematic. We have lots of tools on our website at to assist companies in getting started. 

In terms of robotics adoption, what common mistakes do you see companies make? How can they avoid them?  

Burnstein: The biggest mistake is to try and start your automation journey with the most difficult challenges. It’s usually better to start with “low-hanging fruit” to build a track record of success and trust in robotics. If a company doesn’t have a skilled and experienced in-house engineering team (as many companies don’t), they need to work with experienced partners, such as robotics system integrators.  It’s important to select an integration company that is capable of handling your project and follows industry best practices, such as conducting robotic risk assessments to make sure the project is safe.  That’s one of the reasons we developed our Certified Robot Integrator program. 

How has automation changed the demands on workers, and the skills that employers need?   

Burnstein: There is an increasing need for skilled workers, and a shortage of them, especially as baby boomers who worked in industries like manufacturing are now retiring. So, we need to make sure we provide the necessary training in schools and through apprenticeship programs to meet the demand.  Workers will find that instead of jobs that require them to walk 6 miles a day or lift heavy items, they’ll be increasingly responsible for overseeing operations and jobs that allow them to use their brain instead of their brawn. 

What's the Engelberger award, and what are your thoughts on receiving it?   

Burnstein: The Engelberger award is the “Nobel Prize of Robotics.” Only something like 136 people have ever won an Engelberger award dating back to 1977 when it was first presented. When I think about being in such a select group, I’m extremely humbled. It’s the capstone to a 40-year career, but I’m not done yet. There’s never been a time as exciting as this for the robotics industry, and I still have more to contribute! 

Outside of work, what do you like to do?  

Burnstein: I love to travel, collect whisky (especially Scotch), and I’m a big sports fan, especially of the Michigan Wolverines football team. (Go Blue!). I also like to read, watch movies and walk to keep in shape. My wife and I also love seeing our two daughters whenever possible (they both live out of state). 

How would you like to be remembered? 

Burnstein: I’d like to be remembered for leading the effort that created A3, the world’s largest and most influential robotics and automation trade association. 

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.