Salary range: $40,000-$100,000
Experience/skills: Associate degree in a technical field and extensive training. People skills also come in handy.
Perks: Lots of travel, helping clients customize each machine to a particular task
Who's hiring? ABB, Fanuc, Motoman, Panasonic, Toyota
Back in 1990, Matt Zeigler was pulling 12-hour shifts as an arc welder for a forklift manufacturing firm in Indiana when a technician in a white lab coat came into the factory to work on a new $85,000 robotic welder. "I said, 'Why aren't I doing that?'" Zeigler recalls. Self-training eventually got him out of blue-collar work and into a top robot programming position at Motoman in Dayton, Ohio, one of a growing number of industrial robot manufacturers that train humans to make sure their products perform as advertised.
Industrial robots, once a fixture in the auto industry, now are doing everything from analyzing blood samples to mixing cocktails. The latest innovations include multi-armed robots with vision systems and enough machine intelligence to read labels and pick out the parts they need from nearby bins.
Zeigler, 35, spends most of his time behind a PC and a custom hand-held controller, calibrating the robots' moving parts to be in just the right place at just the right time. He is also on the road a lot, acting as salesman, engineer, and installer for Motoman's customers. "I wear a lot of hats," he says.
Far from eliminating jobs, Zeigler says robots are "creating better jobs and better-paying jobs. They're just more technical and not as repetitive."