4 Reasons You’ll Find Robots In A U.S. Factory
Ever since robots started appearing on a regular basis in popular science fiction movies, there’s been a latent fear in society that someday someone will be able to create robots to outright replace people who perform work. While this hasn’t quite happened on the American assembly lines with humanistic robots per se, the level of automation in goods production has developed to such a level that jobs are changing as a direct result of a computer-driven assembly processes.
US Manufacturing And The Rise Of Automation
Since 2001, U.S. manufacturing has found a way to eliminate five million jobs in manufacturing but also increase the production of goods by 27%. Further, unlike the myth that American goods are all being made overseas, U.S. manufacturing exports have jumped to their best levels in two decades. That’s not due to foreign jobs replacing domestic jobs. Instead, automation has been the quiet influence. Despite the stories of the slow death of U.S. manufacturing, there are still approximately 300,000 manufacturing centers in the United States, the same level since 1990.
For industry watchers, computers given automation is no big surprise. Software has become far more complex and capable of actual problem solving. This represents the major challenge in making automation work at an intuitive level: able to independently identify acceptable action versus unacceptable production and subsequent correction. The hardware has always been the easy part; assemblies, connections, arms, rollers and movement are all easy to design with a series of joints and hydraulics, but software is what makes the assemblies work.
Now that this key software challenge has been overcome, the benefits of automation in manufacturing became apparent very quickly, but only now that they reached an acceptable price point to install. First, automated systems don’t tire. They can operate at a true 100% capacity without breaks, sickness, vacations, down time, coffee breaks or any other kind of interruption. As long as there is demand and plenty of raw resources to use, automated systems will run continuously day and night.
Second, automation isn’t subject to any personnel issues. It can be put in place, and only maintenance is required to keep it going. There are no work stoppages due to labor problems or strikes. Machines don’t file lawsuits for EEO issues, discrimination, harassment or similar. Far from shocking to analysts, automation has contributed to a negative job growth in the 2000s versus previous years because it’s lack of labor problems is so apparent.
Third, automation costs can be financed over time, making their initial cash outlay minimal compared to the cost of human labor performing the same job. Where equipment and software can be financed with loans, a business can earn and generate cash to meet payroll needs. Banks don’t like to loan against intangibles; they like to lend against capital equipment as collateral.
Fourth, automation provides secondary benefits such as process data collection. The time it takes to produce goods with one resource over another can now be captured, allowing one to find new ways to reduce operating costs by smaller and smaller margins. This sort of information couldn’t be calculated from human labor.
Progress But At What Cost?
Automation appears to be here to stay and grow, and given the financial and production benefits it provides, large manufacturing companies will go kicking and screaming anyway but forward. While the new method of production will create new jobs in engineering, technical control of machines and similar, those positions won’t match the number of jobs being eliminated from the assembly lines. That trend, even more than offshore production and globalization, appears to be eroding the American middle class as a result.
Will the modern workforce assimilate in a new way or instead continue to become assimilated by machines?