There has been quite a bit of talk recently about the fear of robots taking over the jobs of American workers. A lot of it is hype and sensationalism, building on thrilling sci-fi exploits of robotic humanoids taking over the world. It pays to take a step back and look at what automation and robotics really mean for bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.
At the Automate and ProMat shows last month at Chicago's McCormick Place, Henrik Christensen, director of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, presented his views on how robotic technology is taking shape and how it affects trends in manufacturing and employment within and around that sector. Confronting a recent segment on 60 Minutes called "March of the Machines," Christensen called it a one-sided piece of journalism that presented a simple viewpoint: Introduce technology and kill jobs.
Christensen headed up a National Robotics Roadmap effort that considers key business drivers for the future of robotics, identifies missing competencies, and outlines which research issues need to be addressed. A team presented the roadmap to a congressional caucus on robotics, along with the White House Office of Science and Technology Planning.
"We went to talk to the White House, which gave us the same reaction as 60 Minutes: 'This administration is all about creating jobs. You're killing jobs. Why would we want to talk to you?'" Christensen recalled. "We had to explain to them that they were being stupid."
The economic landscape plays a significant role in robotics. The recession resulted in a large number of layoffs, and as companies experience an upswing, they are reevaluating the best options for moving forward, Christensen said. Two key questions within that discussion: Is manufacturing in the U.S. the best option? Is manual processing the best option?
It's within this framework that robotics are key. It's also within this scenario that naysayers contend that manufacturing is growing without bringing employment numbers back up, and robots are responsible for killing American jobs. That was much of the focus on the 60 Minutes segment. For more on that discussion, see "Robot Employment Scare: 'Crappy Journalism'?" Editor in Chief Joe Feeley also has an interesting perspective on the discussion on this issue's Editor's Page.
I want to focus more here, though, on the arguments supporting the relationship between robotics and the reshoring of manufacturing in the U.S. We're hearing more, after all, about manufacturers bringing production back home. That makes sense in part because of the rising wages in manufacturing bastions like China. But the other part of that equation is automation, which makes production here more affordable.
As Christensen noted, Apple is bringing some production of iMacs back to the U.S. from China. Foxconn Technology Group, a major supplier to Apple and HP, also plans to expand manufacturing in the U.S. Tesla not only challenged itself to make a green car that was sexy, but to do so in the U.S. "Doing it in California was an interesting challenge," Christensen said. "They did use a significant amount of automation to do this."
Not only is that good for the automation industry, but it doesn't necessarily mean that U.S. jobs are sacrificed for the cause. "Manufacturing generates more associated jobs than any other sector," Christensen noted. "For every job in manufacturing, there are 1.3 jobs created in other areas."
Introducing technology improves productivity. And yes, in the process, unskilled jobs in particular will be displaced by that technology. It's cheaper, but it's also faster and higher quality.
But Christensen pointed to a study that explored what happens to employment when you invest in technology. "In the short term, there's unemployment," he noted. "But if you look three to five years out, it'll come back much higher." Looking at numbers throughout Europe and Japan, there was 12–15% job growth long term.
In the end, there's not really a choice. Automation is needed to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. As Christensen said, "We can either do this offshore, or we can use automation and do it onshore."