Your pal the robot
Aid, don’t displace, workers: study
IN MAN VERSUS machine, the robots always seem to come out ahead — but a new study suggests it’s a little more complicated than that.
While the automotive industry is among the nation’s most heavily saturated, many other industrial sectors still rely more on humans than “automatically controlled, reprogrammable machines,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who recently published “Where the Robots Are.”
As his study found, the biggest robot clusters are in the Midwest and Southern manufacturing states, where automaking is still prevalent.
“More than half of the nation’s 233,305 industrial robots are burning welds, painting cars, assembling products, handling materials or packaging things in just 10 Midwestern and Southern states,” Muro found.
Michigan has 28,000 robots, or 12% of the nation’s total, followed by Ohio with 20,400, or 9%. Indiana has 19,400, roughly 8%, just ahead of Tennessee.
After automaking, the electronics, rubber and plastics industries are the most reliant on robots, Muro said.
But instead of displacing humans, in some cases robots are picking up their slack.
In one plastics factory in Tennessee, a special robot was brought in to work during hardto-fill shifts.
Named “Sawyer,” the machine is touted as a “collaborative robot” with a flexible arm that can operate safely next to people, according to Rethink Robotics, its creator.
The plant manager credited “Sawyer” with helping to keep the factory’s doors open.
“We have been really struggling to get workers in our factory, especially on the off-shifts. The truth is, there are not a lot of people in our area looking for injection-molding jobs, and if we don’t have people showing up to work, we can’t operate,” general manager Danny Rose said in a news release trumpeting the success of the project.
It’s not uncommon to hear of labor shortages in the manufacturing industries, said Muro — even though President Trump campaigned on the promise of reviving American manufacturing amid a widespread belief that most of its jobs had been shipped overseas.
In reality, Muro’s study suggested, some U.S.-based companies have been able to stay here because of cheap, automated labor.
“Manufacturing output has been going up, some manufacturing operations may not be able to find labor, and automation is a good solution — good for the country, too, because the alternative would be offshoring it,” Muro said. “It does have the ability to make a plant more competitive.”
On the other hand, a factory may not be able to attract human workers because of low pay, and automation can have a restraining effect on salaries, he added.
While robots are not common in the West, which accounts for only 13% of the nation’s total, industrial automation has sharply increased across the U.S. in the past seven years, Muro (photo inset) said. That growth is especially visible in New York and New Jersey.
In 2010, there were 1,715 industrial robots working in factories in New York and New Jersey. Over the next five years that number more than doubled, to 3,700.
The study looks only at industrial robots and doesn’t include warehousing and fulfillment centers like those created by Amazon, which are highly automated, said Muro.
Yet even in those centers, there are still plenty of human employees, he added.
“It was thought 20 years ago that the ideal for factories was to have nobody in them, but now we’ve very consciously moved back to a collaboration between a significant number of robots and people,” he said.
Industrial robots also require humans to maintain them, program them, and, in some cases, even run them — which opens a pathway for new manufacturing jobs that are in some ways better than those of 20 years ago, Muro said.
Rather than machines versus humans with an inevitable loss of jobs, the 21st century manufacturing plant is moving toward machines and humans working together, Muro said.
“Clearly there will be fewer workers, but output will go up and it creates more viable manufacturing in the U.S. Absent these technologies, we would have much less manufacturing in the U.S. than we do,” he said.
“Sawyer” the “collaborative” robot (pictured) is credited with keeping a Tennessee plastics factory open.