Rise of the machines
A Wisconsin company couldn’t find enough workers, so it filled the openings with robots.
DRESSER, WIS.» The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.” “We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said. They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into the building. The forklift carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and ear plugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.
The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows. One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work. That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.
In factory after American factory, the surren- der of the industrial age to the age of automation continues at a record pace. Its primary reason is well-established: a search for cost-cutting and efficiency.
But as one factory in Wisconsin is showing, the forces driving automation can have nothing to do with the condition of the American workforce. The robots were coming in not to replace humans, but because reliable humans had become so hard to find.
In earlier decades, companies would have re-
sponded to such a shortage by either giving up on expansion hopes or boosting wages until they filled their positions. But now, they had another option. Robots had become more affordable. No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate. As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of smalland medium-size companies. Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker – humans and robots. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week Robot 1 and Robot 2 arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.
A new option for smaller companies
Tenere is a company that manufactures custom-made metal and plastic parts, mostly for the tech industry. Five years earlier a private-equity firm acquired the company, expanded to Mexico, and ushered in what the company called “a new era of growth.” In Wisconsin, where it has 550 employees, all non-union, wages started at $10.50 per hour for first shift and $13 per hour for overnight. Counting health insurance and retirement benefits, even the lowest-paid worker was more expensive than the robots, which Tenere was leasing from a Nashville-based start-up, Hirebotics, for $15 per hour.
Hirebotics co-founder Matt Bush said that, before coming to Tenere, he’d been all across America installing robots at factories with similar hiring problems. “Everybody is struggling to find people,” he said, and it was true even in a slice of western Wisconsin so attuned to the rhythms of shift work that one local bar held happy hour three times a day.
The new robots had been made in Denmark, shipped to North Carolina, sold to engineers in Nashville, and then driven to Wisconsin.
The robots had no faces, no bodies, nothing to suggest anything but mechanical efficiency.
As the engineers prepared it for operation, Robot 1 was programmed to make a three-foot path of motion, one that it would use to make part No. 07123571. More commonly, Tenere called this part the claw.
The purpose of the claw was to holster a disk drive. Tenere had been making them for two years, at two separate mechanical presses, where workers fed 6-by-7 inch pieces of flat aluminum into the machine, pressed two buttons simultaneously, and then extracted the metal – now bent at the edges. Tenere’s workers were supposed to do this 1,760 times per shift.
“How fast do you want it?” Hirebotics co-founder Rob Goldiez asked a plant manager supervising the installation.
First the Robot 1 was cycling every 20 seconds, and then every 14.9 seconds, and finally every 9.5 seconds. Or 379 every hour; 3,032 every shift; 9,096 every day.
The struggle to stay sober
Some distance away, in front of another mechanical press, was a 51-year-old man named Bobby Campbell who had the same job as Robot 1. He’d wound up with the position because of an accident: In February, he’d had too much to drink, tumbled off a deck at his daughter’s house, and broken his neck. When he returned after three months, Tenere pulled him out of the laser department and put him on light duty.
“Beat that robot today,” Campbell’s supervisor said.
“Hah,” Campbell said, who worked alone at his station, where there were 1,760 claws to make and eight hours until he drove home.
Campbell had been at Tenere for three years. He earned $13.50 per hour. He liked working at Tenere, he said. Good people. Good benefits.
He lived 31 miles and 40 minutes away, provided he didn’t stop. The problem was, sometimes he did. Along the drive home there were a dozen gas stations and minimarts selling beer, and Campbell said he couldn’t figure out why some days he would leave work early and turn in.
That day he punched the buttons 1,376 times, 384 shy of his target.
A robot on the team
Robot 2 had a different job than Robot 1. It was to be part of a team – the assembly line. The team worked along a 70-foot row of tables lined with workstations that were always at least a few workers shy, where employees snapped and riveted metal pieces, building silver, rectangular containers. Each container, by the time it reached the last assembly workstation, was outfitted with either 13 or 15 miniature drawer slots. It was the job of the third-to-last worker on the line to fill each with a claw. That would become the sole task of Robot 2.
Days earlier, Annie Larson, the woman who would work alongside Robot 2, had been at home, the end of another shift, laid out in a recliner sipping a Mountain Dew mixed with what she described as the cheapest vodka she could find. There’d been six years at Tenere of days like these. Trying to unwind. Alone in her onebedroom apartment. Bedtime at 9. Alarm at 5:40 a.m. Out the door at 6:20. Into her old Chevy. Six miles up the street. Then into the Tenere parking lot, clocking in just before 7, the next day of trying to keep pace.
Except this time, as a forklift came to a stop nearby, she saw four boxes being dropped off at the end of the line.
“What in the hell?” she thought. Larson was one of the steadiest parts of an assembly team in which so many other workers had lasted for weeks or months. “My line,” Larson called it.
She was 48, and she had no plans to leave. Her roots were here. Her mother lived four blocks away. Her father lived six blocks away. Her son, daughter and grandchild were all within 15 miles. Larson couldn’t afford vacations or new clothing, but she paid every bill on time: $545 for rent, $33 for electric — every amount and due date programmed into her phone.
But it was the numbers at work that had been leaving her feeling more drained than usual lately. The team felt as if it was forever in catch-up mode.
She and her co-workers were supposed to complete 2,250 containers per week. But with so many jobs unfilled, they missed the mark by 170 the week before the robots arrived.
Her co-workers were always changing. For now, they were a Linda, another Linda, a Kevin, a Sarah, a Miah, a Valerie and a Matt. Valerie was a good worker, Larson said, and so was one of the Lindas. But a few of the others struggled to keep pace.
“There’s no caring,” Larson said. “No pride.”
Friday now, and Larson was tired. There was one more shift before the weekend, but this time, when she showed up for work, she saw something different at the end of the line: the robots.
“They’re pretty,” she said, and several hours later, mid-shift, she noticed an employee who’d missed the last few weeks with knee surgery wander over, stopping at the robot.
“Ohh,” the employee said, “they’re taking somebody’s job.” “No, they’re not,” she said. She was surprised by her response. That she had come to the robot’s defense.
The end-of-the-shift buzzer sounded, and Larson got back into her car. Maybe the robots would actually help. Maybe the numbers would get better. Maybe her next problem would be too many humans and not enough robots.
“Me and Val and 12 robots,” Larson said. “I would be happy with that.”
The robots’ first day
Eight days after arriving in boxes, the robots’ first official day of work had arrived. Robot 1 began grabbing the metal rectangles, feeding them into the mechanical press, then extracting them as claws. Robot 2 began swiveling and grabbing the claws, placing them into a few containers that had been assembled overnight.
The people took their stations. In one corner, Robot 1 was pounding out claws, laying them on a conveyor belt. Along a half-empty row of workstations, six people were constructing containers. At the end of that row, Robot 2 was filling those containers with claws.
On the assembly line, Larson and the others were moving fast because they needed to. Robot 2 was filling a container with claws every 1½ minutes, and the humans could barely keep pace. They shoveled 10 containers down the line, and Robot 2 filled them with claws. For a minute, as more containers were being riveted together, the robot sat idle.
“We have to keep leapfrogging,” Larson shouted. “The robot needs some work.”
Within an hour, the workers of the first shift had filled a shipping box with finished containers – the first batch made by both humans and robots. Then came a second box, and then a third, and then a buzzer sounded for a break. The work paused, and a manager, Ed Moryn, grabbed the Hirebotics engineers and asked them to follow.
He took them through a passageway and into another building, stopping at two more workstations where he said the company needed help. A press brake job. An assembly job. “Can we do these?” Moryn asked. The engineers studied the work areas for 15 minutes, took some measurements, and two days later offered Tenere one version of a solution for a company trying to fill 132 openings. Tenere looked at the offer and signed the paperwork. In September, the engineers would be coming back, arriving this time with the boxes holding Robot 3 and Robot 4.
Annie Larson assembles parts on her line at Tenere, where she's worked for six years. Although life in rural Wisconsin is tough, she has no plans to leave.
Hirebotics co-founders Matt Bush, left, and Rob Goldiez, right, work alongside a Tenere employee to set up the workstation for Robot 2. It joined an assembly line with human workers at the rural Wisconsin company.
A "now hiring" can be seen on a sign and an inflatable air dancer outside Tenere.
Employees at Tenere in Dresser, Wis., take a smoke break. Robots have entered the workplace not to replace humans, and not just as a way to modernize, but because reliable workers have become difficult to find.