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Robots Assisting or Hurting Manufacturing in America?
On Sunday's edition of 60 Minutes, the show investigated the role of robotics in the American workplace. RIM Director Professor Henrik Christensen serves as an academic and research leader on the National Robotics Initiative, which was established by the White House in 2011. He explores the truth and the myths of manufacturing and robots.
Recently there have been a lot of press stories about robots, the economy and their relation to employment. The stories are mixed. Some claim that we will lose jobs to robots, while others say that the U.S. will grow through use of robots in manufacturing. In reality, both of those viewpoints are valid and understandable. Unfortunately, most of the stories are presented as one or the other. A more two-sided discussion is beneficial.
Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in the use of robot systems. Robots have been used for dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. This includes welding, sorting in warehouses and the assembly of electronics. It's clear that introduction of robots to perform a job that a human was doing before might displace a person. There are three kinds of uses:
• Introduction of robots to perform tasks that cannot be performed by humans
• Introduction of systems to assist people
• Introduction of systems to do work formerly performed by humans
The motivation for displacement of labor is typically higher performance, which can be lower price, higher quality or improved performance. There has been a worry about new technology throughout history. About 130 years ago, people were worried about the introduction of steam engines and assembly lines. What would happen to the labor force? Eventually we had the automotive industry that could generate affordable cars for everyone and a significant number of new jobs. Around 1980, secretaries were worried about their jobs as typing pools disappeared due to the introduction of personal computers. Today most people handle their own email, but there are nonetheless more administrative assistants handling travel, scheduling and typing meeting minutes. The jobs have become increasingly skilled. So one of the challenges we are experiencing is that some unskilled jobs gradually are getting automated and the displacement in jobs is from unskilled to skilled labor. It will be important for the work force to continue to receive training.
As an example, through use of robots, it is possible to reduce the price of manufacturing, which in turn enables in-sourcing. Apple and Lenovo have announced a new plant in the U.S. Tesla manufactures green cars in California. Welding is performed by robots, just as it has been done for 30 years in Detroit. Some of the jobs carried out in foreign countries can only be in-sourced through use of automation. However, every job in manufacturing creates another 1.3 associated jobs in services, supply chain, etc. The economy is growing and America is slowly recovering jobs. The current trend is that jobs that were outsourced earlier are returning to America, some of them through use of automation, some new ones for manufacturing and some in associated industries.