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Robots and the Future of Manufacturing

September 27, 2012


British entrepreneur Luke Johnson writes, “Modern plants use robots and increasingly few workers and run day and night, 365 days a year.” [“Making it in the new industrial revolution,” Financial Times, 28 August 2012] Johnson goes on to note that “Asian electronics powerhouse Flextronics plans to buy more than 1m robots in the coming years.” Undoubtedly, robots are going to play an increasingly important role in manufacturing. The upside to using robots is increased productivity. The downside is decreased employment. Johnson reports, “Many of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared in the advanced economies have done so thanks to productivity improvements, not offshoring.” That doesn’t mean that humans are disappearing from the factory floor; but, the jobs humans are required to undertake are definitely changing. Johnson explains:

“The jobs that new factories do create will be highly skilled roles. Manufacturers want recruits trained in ‘Stem’ subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – which is why the recent surge in popularity of these ‘hard’ subjects is such great news.”

James R. Hagerty and Miho Inada remind us that “robots in factories don’t resemble R2-D2, the charming electronic handyman in ‘Star Wars’ films. They tend to be faceless machines doing heavy, repetitive chores.” [“Robots Get a Makeover in Factories,” Wall Street Journal, 31 May 2012] Hagerty and Inada note that, in the past, heavy industrial robots have often been kept well away from humans while they are operating in order to keep humans safe. Even some of today’s most advanced robots are cordoned off from the humans supervising them to prevent injury. In a Philips Electronics factory located in the Netherlands, for example, robot arms “work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured.” [“Skilled Work, Without the Worker,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 18 August 2012] Markoff writes:

“This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.”

Hagerty and Inada report that, in some cases, humans and machines are likely to work in much closer proximity in the future. They explain:

“Cheaper and more advanced sensor technology promises to let robots work in closer proximity to people, without maiming or bumping into them. Companies including Japan’s Kawada Industries Inc. and Fanuc Corp. and Switzerland-based ABB Ltd. are developing dexterous robots to perform such delicate tasks as assembling smartphones — something now typically done by nimble-fingered women in China. If these experimental robots pan out, they may cut the labor costs of consumer-electronic product companies, reducing the allure of low-wage countries.”

A Boston-based company called Rethink Robotics is also making a big bet “that robots in the future will work directly with humans in the workplace.” [“A Robot With a Reassuring Touch,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 18 September 2012] Markoff reports:

“The $22,000 robot [named Baxter] that Rethink will begin selling in October is the clearest evidence yet that robotics is more than a laboratory curiosity or a tool only for large companies with vast amounts of capital. The company is betting it can broaden the market for robots by selling an inexpensive machine that can collaborate with human workers, the way the computer industry took off in the 1980s when the prices of PCs fell sharply and people without programming experience could start using them right out of the box. ‘It feels like a true Macintosh moment for the robot world,’ said Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who oversaw the development of the iPod and the iPhone. “

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll introduce you more formally to Baxter. The prospect of using cost effective robots excites manufacturers that could locate factories in or closer to countries that buy their products. This would significantly reduce their transportation costs. But introducing job-reduced manufacturing also comes with some political implications; especially at a time when unemployment rates are high. Robot manufacturers are countering these concerns by arguing that “the aim isn’t to shoo humans out of factories. It is to give people more efficient tools.” And Markoff notes that “a report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics last year found that 150,000 people are already employed by robotics manufacturers worldwide in engineering and assembly jobs.” Still, 150,000 jobs hardly make a dent towards employing the number of workers replaced by robots. Markoff reports, “The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost.” Hagerty and Inada continue:

“‘There are things that people do better than robots,’ such as improvising or quickly adapting to design changes, [Nicolas de Keijser, ABB’s global product manager for small robots] says. ‘That will remain so.’ Today, robots are used mostly in making cars and semiconductors or other goods produced in high volumes and requiring force or precision beyond human levels.”

Markoff reports that Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believe that robots are going to start clearing factory floors more quickly than people think and that this development will have profound economic implications. Markoff explains:

“In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues. ‘At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?’ asked Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics products that is based in Silicon Valley and is increasingly automating assembly work. ‘There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.'”

I suspect that the “price point” for hiring robots will arrive much faster than the training programs necessary to prepare the workers who will be needed to program and maintain the robots will arrive. That will inevitably increase the unemployment rate, even as good-paying jobs go unfilled. Markoff reports that not everyone sees a future where only robots are employed. He continues:

“Bran Ferren, a veteran roboticist and industrial product designer at Applied Minds in Glendale, Calif., argues that there are still steep obstacles that have made the dream of the universal assembly robot elusive. ‘I had an early naïveté about universal robots that could just do anything,’ he said. ‘You have to have people around anyway. And people are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in or slip the hose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do.'”

Hagerty, Inada, and Markoff all note that robots are rapidly taking over jobs in the distribution sector. Markoff reports, “Robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people.” And Hagerty and Inada note that Amazon recently purchased “Kiva Systems Inc., a maker of squat, cube-shaped robots that move products around shipping centers.”


Were he still alive, Gene Roddenberry might tell us, “Resistance is futile and humans must assimilate.” Markoff agrees that the roles humans play on factory floors are going to change. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that humans are becoming obsolete. Markoff writes:

“Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs that require workers to move in unpredictable settings and perform different tasks that are not repetitive; assembly work that requires tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats or cars; and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made or where there are many versions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots. But that list is growing shorter.”

Hagerty and Inada agree that robots “aren’t very flexible. If a part isn’t exactly where it is supposed to be, the robot can’t adapt as a person would.” They note other problems as well:

“Programming them to do assembly work can take months. Because product life cycles are short in consumer electronics, manufacturers can’t wait for reprogramming every time a design changes. At Carnegie Mellon University, robotics professor David Bourne and some of his students are working on software that enables a robot to cope with uncertainty over where a part will be on the assembly table, and to experiment with ways to put things together until they find the optimum methods. Using this learning method, a robot at CMU is able to pick up a battery from various angles and, sometimes, snap it into a BlackBerry—a job most people can do intuitively. As the software improves, robots will learn faster, Prof. Bourne says.”

Whether working behind the scenes or side-by-side with robots, humans are indeed going to have to adapt. Julie Shah, an assistant professor in the aeronautics department at MIT, told Hagerty and Inada that “the idea of people working hand in metal fist with robots ‘is becoming less like science fiction every year.” Read tomorrow’s post and you’ll see how close Hagerty’s and Inada’s prediction is to be fulfilled.

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