Your pal the ro­bot

Aid, don’t dis­place, work­ers: study

New York Daily News - - NEWS -

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.

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