Ro­bots slow to in­fil­trate many work­places

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM -

CRAIG TORRES

Vik Singh’s com­pany has pow­er­ful ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware that helps firms hunt down the best sales leads. The ef­fort to get some­body to use it says a lot about the U.S. eco­nomic ex­pan­sion.

U.S. busi­nesses have ev­ery in­cen­tive to adopt la­bor-sav­ing tech­nolo­gies, re­plac­ing fac­tory work­ers with ro­bots and desk jobs with smart soft­ware. In some ar­eas, such as fi­nance, ma­chine de­ci­sion­mak­ing is ad­vanc­ing quickly. In oth­ers, there are ob­sta­cles. Over­all, while the pen­e­tra­tion of au­to­ma­tion in the econ­omy is hap­pen­ing, it is tak­ing place at a slower pace than fu­tur­ists ex­pected.

Singh tells cus­tomers how his sys­tem can help trim sales prospect­ing staff and in­crease rev­enue. Man­agers are in­trigued but some­times re­luc­tant to en­trust a high­touch busi­ness such as sales to a black box.

“They just don’t un­der­stand it,” says the co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of In­fer Inc. in Moun­tain View, Calif. “And they don’t be­lieve it.”

Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies are try­ing to dis­rupt the way we con­sume, work, or move. The econ­omy’s growth po­ten­tial could be higher if smart machines could tur­bocharge how hu­mans go about their tasks. Higher pro­duc­tiv­ity, or out­put per hour, would in­crease cor­po­rate prof­its and may help U.S. work­ers get a pay raise.

But it just isn’t hap­pen­ing yet.

Pro­duc­tiv­ity in the U.S. rose only 1.1 per­cent last year. Rather than be­ing re­placed by tech­nol­ogy, more work­ers are be­ing hired. Em­ploy­ers have added an av­er­age 180,000 new jobs a month this year, and in­vest­ment in in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty prod­ucts, such as soft­ware, has barely edged up as a share of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct.

“Low la­bor pro­duc­tiv­ity is the big­gest prob­lem with the story that I tell,” said An­drew McAfee, co-di­rec­tor at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s Ini­tia­tive on the Dig­i­tal Econ­omy and coau­thor of The Sec­ond Ma­chine

Age, a book about the next

wave of tech­nol­ogy. “Some of these pretty pro­found in­no­va­tions are go­ing to take time to dif­fuse.”

So­cial Ta­bles is a busi­ness that helps com­pa­nies with event space sell it to plan­ners who need it, while also pro­vid­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive tools. The Wash­ing­ton-based com­pany started us­ing In­fer Inc. about three years ago af­ter start­ing a mo­bile app that gave it about 12,000 new sales leads.

The event space and plan­ning mar­ket is large and var­ied. Sort­ing through those leads to find po­ten­tial sub­scribers would have been a gi­gan­tic hu­man task, said Trevor Lynn, the chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer. The com­pany also turns up about 3,000 new leads a month.

So­cial Ta­bles had a cou­ple of choices: Hire an ex­pen­sive data­base en­gi­neer or many more sales­peo­ple to sift the data. In­stead, they use In­fer, which sorts, queries and of­fers up live feed­back on how the leads are per­form­ing. This kind of big-data hunt­ing and vi­sion would be dif­fi­cult for any hu­man to repli­cate in real time.

“We don’t need as many lead qual­i­fi­ca­tion folks,” Lynn said. While So­cial Ta­bles didn’t re­place any­body with In­fer’s

soft­ware, “it def­i­nitely shapes your hir­ing map in the fu­ture,” Lynn said.

So­cial Ta­bles is the typ­i­cal In­fer Inc. cus­tomer — a young, fast-adapt­ing com­pany that is look­ing for ways to use tech­nol­ogy to save money and move quickly. “One less per­son means more de­ci­sions in a rapid man­ner,” Lynn said.

Get­ting more-es­tab­lished com­pa­nies to use the soft­ware is chal­leng­ing, said Singh, who pre­vi­ously worked at Al­pha­bet Inc.’s Google. About 25 per­cent of In­fer’s cus­tomers have been around 10 years or more.

From bag­gage carousels to shift­ing stages at a rock con­cert, a mo­tor made by South­ern Ger­man Elec­tric Mo­tor Work­sEuro­drive — known by its Ger­man acro­nym SEW-Euro­drive Inc. — is prob­a­bly the work­horse mak­ing things move.

Some of the most ef­fi­cient man­u­fac­tur­ing of pre­ci­sion cas­ing and gear­ing this Ger­man com­pany pro­duces hap­pens in a bustling plant on Old Spar­tan­burg High­way in Ly­man, S.C.

In 2000, there were no ro­bots on the fac­tory floor. Now there is one ro­bot for ev­ery hu­man, most made by Ja­pan’s Fanuc Corp.

The in­fu­sion of au­to­ma­tion into the plant didn’t push out a sin­gle worker. Ro­bots added scale. The plant will pro­duce 500,000 com­po­nents this year, up from 78,000 in 1999. To­tal staff is up just 6 per­cent to 148 peo­ple.

The plant is so lean that the hu­mans are hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time keep­ing track of all that ro­bots need and do.

The com­pany is look­ing for a sys­tem to feed data from its pro­duc­tion ma­chin­ery into a com­puter dash­board that gives op­er­a­tors a real-time look at plant per­for­mance rather than scur­ry­ing around with clip­boards.

“If we can make that prod­uct a lit­tle faster with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing qual­ity or safety, then we win,” said Melvin Story, a su­per­vi­sor at the plant.

If a ro­bot is hav­ing trou­ble with a line of com­po­nents, a hu­man can be on the prob­lem more quickly. If there is a main­te­nance pro­gram com­ing up, they can do it on time be­fore some­thing fails.

Meld­ing big data with man­u­fac­tur­ing is the next step for hun­dreds of com­pa­nies, and it is chal­leng­ing, said Bryan Tantzen, head of man­u­fac­tur­ing and in­dus­try so­lu­tions at Cisco, the net­work­ing-tech­nol­ogy gi­ant.

On the plant floor, he said, there is a con­stant need to push up prof­its and pro­duc­tiv­ity. “I think it is re­ally about to hit an in­flec­tion point and ac­cel­er­ate, and there­fore drive pro­duc­tiv­ity.”

Bloomberg News/TRAVIS DOVE

A sys­tems op­er­a­tor works last month along­side ro­bots that man­u­fac­ture gears at the South­ern Ger­man Elec­tric Mo­tor Works-Euro­drive Inc. fac­tory in Ly­man, S.C.

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