Rise of the ma­chines

A Wis­con­sin com­pany couldn’t find enough work­ers, so it filled the open­ings with ro­bots.

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Chico Har­lan

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.

Ack­er­man + Gru­ber, for The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

Ack­er­man + Gru­ber, for The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

Ack­er­man + Gru­ber, for The Wash­ing­ton Post

A "now hir­ing" can be seen on a sign and an in­flat­able air dancer out­side Tenere.

Tim Gru­ber, for The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

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