Skilled Work, Without the Worker

At Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way. At a sister factory here in Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human. One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break, 3 shifts a day, 365 days a year. All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai. This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers. “With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, electrical engineer who manages Philips assembly line in Drachten. Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China. Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. Its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache”. The falling costs and growing sophistication of the robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine”. In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in United States fell from 40% of the work force to about 2% today. The analogy is not only to industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues (…..)

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html

Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

4 Responses to Skilled Work, Without the Worker

  1. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: The use of robotics in manufacturing processes gained momentum in the 1970s. Since then, robots are increasingly replacing humans in the assembly lines. The process cannot be stopped. Emerging economies, such as Brazil, face a major challenge in the forthcoming years. To become globally competitive and generate millions of new jobs for a young and growing population. Traditionally, manufacturing is the main source of well paid jobs in Brazil. If employment declines too rapidly in manufacturing, the Brazilian government will have a serious social problem to deal with. Namely, what to do with millions of unemployed poor youngsters, with easy access to guns and drugs, in the big cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. After all, the service sector only offers low paid MacDonald’s type of jobs with no future whatsoever for a young and ambitious person.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html

  2. Avid Reader: The usa is having this problem too. Unfortunately, we have a new growing culture in our country that has large families working in low paying jobs and its expected to grow enormously in 20 years. This is very bad for the usa economically. The productive with money will be poor too for being taxed to support others. Not sustainable. The american dream is dead. Survival will be king.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html

  3. Baldo: Well, one obvious answer is to make sure that McDonald’s type jobs aren’t low paying. A livable minimum wage combined with a humane social safety net that includes health care, child care and education would go a long way towards improving the lot of the displaced masses. Frankly, this is the only approach that can prevent outright revolution, which is why the current religion of fundamentalist capitalism isn’t likely to survive much longer.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html

  4. Jamie: The service sector provides jobs for many but you are correct in saying that a young and ambitious person would not be satisfied with that. In the US they have taken a different route. They knew this was coming 30 years ago and sold people on going to college as the way to a brighter future. Then they pulled the rug out from under them after graduation since there were no jobs in their fields. So they are working at McDonalds again. This time they are working to pay the corporations that hold their loans. So the rich in the USA get richer and the poor stay poor.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html

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