Rise of the ma­chines

How a cou­ple of ro­bots came to be the new­est hires at a Wis­con­sin fac­tory in search of re­li­able work­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHICO HARLAN IN 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 a build­ing where a row of old me­chan­i­cal presses shook the con­crete floor. The fork­lift honked and car­ried the boxes past work­ers in steel-toed boots and earplugs. 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 sur­ren­der of the in­dus­trial age to the age of au­to­ma­tion con­tin­ues at a record pace. The trans­for­ma­tion is decades along, its pri­mary rea­sons well-estab­lished: a search for cost-cut­ting and ef­fi­ciency.

But as one fac­tory in Wis­con­sin is show­ing, the forces driv­ing au­to­ma­tion can evolve — for rea­sons hav­ing to do with the con­di­tion of the Amer­i­can work­force. The ro­bots were com­ing in not to re­place hu­mans, and not just as a way to mod­ern­ize, but also be­cause re­li­able hu­mans had be­come so hard to find. It was part of a la­bor short­age spread­ing across Amer­ica, one that econ­o­mists said is stem­ming from so many things at once. A low un­em­ploy­ment rate. The re­tire­ment of baby boomers. A younger gen­er­a­tion that doesn’t want fac­tory jobs. And, more and more, a work­force in de­clin­ing health: be­cause of al­co­hol, be­cause of de­spair and de­pres­sion, be­cause of a spike in the use of opi­oids and other drugs.

In ear­lier decades, com­pa­nies would have re­sponded 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 small- and medi­um­size com­pa­nies that had pre­vi­ously de­pended only on the work­ers who lived just beyond their doors. 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 the ro­bots ar­rived, the bal­ance was be­gin­ning to shift.

“Right here, okay?” the fork­lift driver yelled over the noise of the fac­tory, and when a man­ager gave him a nod, he placed on the ground the boxes con­tain­ing the two new­est em­ploy­ees at Tenere, Ro­bot 1 and Ro­bot 2.

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 Nashville­based 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.

In­side the fac­tory, there have been no ma­jor is­sues with qual­ity con­trol, plant man­agers say, only with fill­ing its job open­ings. In the front of­fice, the gen­eral man­ager had nudged up wages for sec­on­dand third-shift work­ers, and was won­der­ing if he’d have to do it again in the next few months. Over in hu­man re­sources, an ad­min­is­tra­tor was say­ing that find­ing peo­ple was like try­ing to “climb Ever­est” — even af­ter the com­pany had loos­ened poli­cies on hir­ing peo­ple with crim­i­nal records. Even the new hires who were coaxed through the door of­ten didn’t last long, with the warn­ing signs be­gin­ning when they filed in for ori­en­ta­tion in a sec­ond-floor of­fice that over­looked the fac­tory floor.

“How’s ev­ery­body do­ing?” said Matt Bader, as four just-hired work­ers walked in on a day when Ro­bot 1 was be­ing in­stalled. “All good?” “Maybe,” one per­son said. Bader, who worked for a staffing agency that helped Tenere fill some of its po­si­tions, scanned the room. There was some­body in torn jeans. Some­body who drove a school bus and needed sum­mer work only. Some­body with­out a car who had hitched a ride.

Bader told them that once they started at Tenere they had to fol­low a few im­por­tant rules, in­clud­ing one say­ing they couldn’t drink al­co­hol or use il­le­gal sub­stances at work. “Ap­par­ently, we need to tell peo­ple that,” Bader said, not men­tion­ing that just a few days be­fore he had driven two em­ploy­ees to a med­i­cal cen­ter for drug tests af­ter man­agers sus­pected they’d shown up high.

One worker sti­fled a yawn. Another asked about get­ting per­sonal calls dur­ing the shift. Another raised his hand. “Yes?” Bader asked. “Do you have any cof­fee?” the worker said. “I don’t,” Bader said. Af­ter an hour the work­ers were head­ing back to their cars, one say­ing that ev­ery­thing “sounds okay,” another say­ing the “pay sucks.” Bader guessed that two of the four “wouldn’t last a week,” be­cause of­ten, he said, he knew within min­utes who would last. Peo­ple who said they couldn’t work Satur­days. Peo­ple who couldn’t work early morn­ings. This was the mys­tery for him: So many peo­ple show­ing up, say­ing they were wor­ried about rent or bills or sup­port­ing chil­dren, and yet they couldn’t hold down a job that could help them.

“I am so sick of hear­ing that,” Bader said. “And then they won­der why things are get­ting au­to­mated.”

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. If any­thing, they looked sim­i­lar to hu­man arms, with sil­ver limbs and pow­der blue el­bows and char­coal-col­ored wrists.

Each had been shipped with a cor­re­spond­ing box of wires and con­trols. Each weighed 40.6 pounds. They had been specif­i­cally de­signed to repli­cate move­ments with such pre­ci­sion than any de­vi­a­tion was no greater than the thick­ness of a hu­man hair — a skill par­tic­u­larly help­ful for Ro­bot 1, which had been brought in to per­form one of the most repet­i­tive jobs in the fac­tory.

As the en­gi­neers pre­pared it for op­er­a­tion, Ro­bot 1 had been bolted in front of a 10-foot-tall me­chan­i­cal press. It was rigged with safety sen­sors and 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.

Ro­bot 1, al­most pro­grammed now, started try­ing it out. It snatched the flat metal from its left side, then swiveled back to­ward the press. It moved noise­lessly. It re­leased the part into the mouth of the ma­chine, and as soon as it with­drew, down came the press to shape the metal into a claw: Wal­lop. The ro­bot’s arm then re­trieved the part, swivel­ing back to its left, and drop­ping the claw on a con­veyor belt.

“How fast do you want it?” Hire­botics co-founder Rob Goldiez asked a plant man­ager su­per­vis­ing the in­stal­la­tion.

First the ro­bot was cy­cling ev­ery 20 sec­onds, and then ev­ery 14.9 sec­onds, and then ev­ery 10 sec­onds. An engi­neer tog­gled with the set­tings, and later the speed bumped up again. A claw was be­ing pro­duced ev­ery 9.5 sec­onds. Or 379 ev­ery hour; 3,032 ev­ery shift; 9,096 ev­ery day.

“This mo­tion,” Goldiez said, “will be re­peat­able for years.”

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. Now, as the test­ing con­tin­ued on a ro­bot that he said “just looks like some­thing you see in the damned den­tist’s of­fice,” Camp­bell was start­ing his 25th con­sec­u­tive work­day feed­ing claws to the ma­chine. He’d punched the same two but­tons that ac­ti­vated the press 36,665 times.

“Beat that ro­bot to­day,” Camp­bell’s su­per­vi­sor said.

“Hah,” Camp­bell said, turn­ing his back and set­tling in at his sta­tion, where there were 1,760 claws to make and eight hours un­til he drove home.

He set his can­vas lunch con­tainer on a side ta­ble and oiled his me­chan­i­cal press. He cut open a box of parts and placed the first flat piece of metal un­der the press. A gauge on the side of the press kept count. Wal­lop. “1,” the counter said, and af­ter Camp­bell had pressed the but­ton 117 more times, there were seven hours to go.

Un­like the em­ploy­ees on the assem­bly line, Camp­bell worked alone. His press was off in a cor­ner. There was no foot traf­fic, no­body to talk to, noth­ing to look at. Camp­bell stopped his work and re­moved a con­tainer of pills. He took a low-dose as­pirin for his neck, another pill for high blood pres­sure. He snacked on some pep­pers and home­made pick­les, fed 393 more parts in the ma­chine, and then it was time for lunch. Four hours to go.

“Mon­day,” he said with a lit­tle shrug. “I’ll pick it up af­ter I get some fuel.”

Camp­bell had been at Tenere for three years. He earned $13.50 per hour. He had a bad back, a shaved and scarred head, a tear duct that per­pet­u­ally leaked af­ter or­bital surgery, and ag­ing bi­ceps that he showed off with sleeve­less Har­ley-David­son shirts. He liked work­ing at Tenere, he said. Good peo­ple. Good ben­e­fits. Some days he hit his tar­gets, other days he didn’t, but his su­per­vi­sors never got on him, and the com­pany had al­ways been pa­tient with him, even as he dealt with some per­sonal prob­lems.

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 turn in. He’d tried ev­ery­thing he could think of to stop him­self. Call­ing his daugh­ters, call­ing his wife. Turn­ing up the music and lis­ten­ing to Rod Ste­wart. He’d been to Al­co­holics Anony­mous meet­ings, he said. He’d spent 28 days at a treat­ment cen­ter. He’d looked for jobs that would cut down on the com­mute. He’d faced a fam­ily in­ter­ven­tion where the whole fam­ily read him let­ters, as he sat there feel­ing like what he called a “kinder­gart­ner.”

Some­times, Camp­bell said, he al­most thought he was through the worst — sober for weeks at a time — but then came Satur­day, when he was sup­posed to work an eight-hour shift and in­stead clocked out af­ter three hours, stop­ping on the way home and down­ing a 12-pack of beer be­fore sun­down. Then came Sunday, another 12 beers out on the lake. Now it was Mon­day, and Camp­bell said he was sure he’d be okay if he could just get home. There, his wife only al­lowed him to have non­al­co­holic beers. But that was 31 miles away. “Just the un­cer­tainty,” Camp­bell said, and he tried not to think about it, with the lunch break over, and 3 hours and 40 min­utes to go.

He stepped onto the floor pad in front of the press and got back to work. A box of flat metal pieces was to his left, a hop­per of fin­ished claws sat on his right, and Camp­bell’s hands moved in a rhythm, grab­bing and in­sert­ing. “As long as I’ve got parts in front of me, I’m all right,” he said. Twenty min­utes with­out look­ing up. Then 40. Then nearly 60. The gauge said 912.

“All right,” Camp­bell said, when there was an hour left to go, still press­ing the but­tons.

He hummed a song. He whis­tled. He fed 11 pieces of metal to the ma­chine in a minute, and then 13, then nine. His eyes darted from left to right. He nod­ded his head.

The press’s clutch was hiss­ing and ex­hal­ing, hiss­ing and ex­hal­ing, and Camp­bell added a last pump of oil to the ma­chine with 15 min­utes to go. Out came a few more parts, and he fed them into the hop­per, checked the gauge, and shrugged. “Not so bad,” he said.

Time to go home. He had punched the but­tons another 1,376 times, 384 shy of his tar­get, and now he got in the car.

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, one that it started to test out af­ter days of pro­gram­ming and setup.

The claws ar­rived at Ro­bot 2’s sta­tion on a con­veyor belt. From there, the ro­bot made a three-foot mo­tion of its own. Grab­bing the claw with its grip­per. Swivel­ing 90 de­grees. Reach­ing its arm to­ward the con­tainer. And then, in­sert­ing the claw into one of the drawer slots with an in­tri­cate push: for­ward 80 mil­lime­ters, down five mil­lime­ters, for­ward another 20 mil­lime­ters, up eight mil­lime­ters, for­ward another 12. “A del­i­cate move,” Bush said. One that Ro­bot 2 would be able to make ev­ery seven sec­onds once it joined the line.

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 one-bed­room 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. Her line su­per­vi­sor, Tom Jo­hannsen, had told work­ers a few weeks ear­lier the ro­bots were com­ing. But he hadn’t said when they would ar­rive, or what ex­actly they would do. He hadn’t de­scribed how they would look. He’d just said no­body was los­ing their jobs, and not to worry, and that Tenere was “sup­ple­ment­ing some of the peo­ple we can’t find.”

Now, though, the boxes were be­ing opened up, wires ev­ery­where, and Lar­son started to worry. The ma­chines looked too com­pli­cated. Maybe they’d break down. Maybe they couldn’t keep pace. Maybe they’d be just one more prob­lem at the fac­tory, and al­ready, their boxes were get­ting in the way. Only six peo­ple were on the line, which meant Lar­son was leapfrog­ging from one work­sta­tion to the next, try­ing to do the work of two or three. She could feel ev­ery­body fall­ing be­hind. She nearly tripped over a floor mat that had buck­led to make space for the ro­bot. Lar­son turned to one of the ro­bot en­gi­neers and said, “We have no room over here. It sucks.” When the end-of-the-shift buzzer sounded, the line had made 32 fewer con­tain­ers than it was sup­posed to, and that night, Lar­son said, she had more drinks than her usual one or two.

But then came the next day: Back again, on time. Al­ways on time. 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. Her su­per­vi­sor called her “old school.” A man­ager called her “no non­sense.” Oth­ers moaned about the job dur­ing lunchtime breaks. Lar­son, want­ing no part of that, pulled up a stool to the assem­bly line ev­ery day and ate by her­self. “If the job is that bad, go!” she said. She was 48, and she had no plans to leave. Ru­ral Wis­con­sin was tough, but so what; she couldn’t start over. 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. They were off 130 the week prior. The line got a pep talk from the su­per­vi­sor, Jo­hannsen, who said he could no­tice Lar­son in par­tic­u­lar “get­ting frus­trated.”

“Are there any claws in that box?” Lar­son said now, mo­tion­ing across a ta­ble. Another worker checked. “No.” “Ugh,” Lar­son said, and she grabbed the empty box and darted down the line, pony tail bob­bing. She re­turned 15 sec­onds later with an over­flow­ing pile of claws. “Here,” she said, drop­ping the box on an assem­bly line ta­ble. She reached over to the pile of con­tain­ers and be­gan fill­ing them. Fif­teen claws. Then 30. Her shirt was dark­ened with sweat. Forty-five claws. Sixty.

“You’re power-haul­ing,” another worker said.

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. Lar­son told them some­times how they could be more ef­fi­cient in their jobs. How they could line up riv­ets in par­al­lel rows, for in­stance. But who was pay­ing at­ten­tion?

“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 no longer looked like a mess. Their wires had been tucked into con­trol boxes. Their sta­tions had been swept clean. They were sur­rounded by new con­veyor belts.

“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. But then she looked at what the ro­bot was go­ing to do: Put a claw in the slot. Put another claw in the slot. Put another claw in the slot.

“It’s not a good job for a per­son to have any­way,” she said.

The end-of-the-shift buzzer sounded, and Lar­son got back into her car. Then back into the re­cliner, where she poured her drink and tried to think about how the assem­bly line was go­ing to change. 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.”

Eight days af­ter ar­riv­ing in boxes, the ro­bots’ first of­fi­cial day of work had ar­rived. In be­tween the end of the overnight shift and the start of the first shift, the en­gi­neers did a last run-through and then picked up the touch screens that con­trolled the ro­bots. 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 ro­bots were six feet apart from one another, at sta­tions pro­duc­ing the only noise in an oth­er­wise quiet fac­tory. Ev­ery 9.5 sec­onds: the wal­lop of the press. And then, the snap­ping of a claw slid­ing into a slot.

And then, the 7 a.m. buzzer to start the day.

In came the work­ers, some of whom took a mo­ment to stand near the ro­bots and watch. “It’s pretty amaz­ing,” one said. “Gosh, it doesn’t take breaks,” another said.

“Can I smack it if I need to?” Lar­son asked, and then she said, “Okay, let’s go.”

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. And at the other side of the fac­tory, Camp­bell was stamp­ing out claws the old way, feed­ing the metal and press­ing the but­tons, 320 in the first hour, even as he pulled a tis­sue out of his pocket ev­ery few min­utes to dab his leaky eye.

“This ma­chine is get­ting hot, I’m work­ing it so hard,” Camp­bell said.

At the assem­bly line, Lar­son and the oth­ers were mov­ing fast be­cause they needed to. Ro­bot 2 was fill­ing a con­tainer with claws ev­ery 11/2 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

Rob Goldiez, co-founder of Hire­botics, con­fig­ures a ro­bot at Tenere Inc. in Dresser, Wis.

ACKERMAN + GRUBER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bobby Camp­bell per­forms many of the same du­ties as Ro­bot 1 at Tenere in Dresser, Wis. He says he likes work­ing at the fac­tory, cit­ing good col­leagues and ben­e­fits. Camp­bell adds that the com­pany was pa­tient with him as he dealt with per­sonal prob­lems. Below, “now hir­ing” can be seen on a sign and an in­flat­able air dancer out­side Tenere.

ACKERMAN + GRUBER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ACKERMAN + GRUBER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Hire­botics co-founders Matt Bush, left, and Rob Goldiez, right, work along­side a Tenere em­ployee to set up the work­sta­tion for Ro­bot 2. ABOVE: 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

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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