Nimble new robots change industry
Drachten, the Netherlands
At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their handsand specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.
At a sister factory here in the 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 mostdexterous human.
One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them intoholes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed inglass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it allwithout a coffee break - three shifts a day, 365 days a year.
All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as theplant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.
This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used byautomakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in bothmanufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a strikingcounterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employhundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.
"With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world," said Binne Visser, whomanages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.
Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips's approach is gaining ground onApple's. Even as Foxconn, Apple's iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hirethousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a millionrobots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not said how many workers will be displaced. But its chairman, Terry Gou, hasendorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees, he said inJanuary, according to the official Xinhua news agency: "As human beings are also animals, tomanage one million animals gives me a headache."
The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have renewed a debate over how quicklyjobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. "The paceand scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profoundeconomic 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 therevolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in theUnited States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent.
But Bran Ferren, a veteran roboticist and industrial product designer at Applied Minds inGlendale, California, argues that there are still steep obstacles. "I had an early naivete aboutuniversal robots that could just do anything," he said. "You have to have people aroundanyway. And people are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in or slip thehose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do."
Beyond the technical challenges lies resistance from unionized workers and communitiesworried about jobs. Even though rising labor and transportation costs in Asia and fears ofintellectual property theft are now bringing some work back to the West, the ascension ofrobots may mean fewer jobs will be created.
At the Flextronics solar panel factory in Milpitas, south of San Francisco, a banner proclaims, "Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California!" Yet in the plant, there are robotseverywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work isdone by robots. The human workers trim excess material, thread wires and screw in a handfulof fasteners.
Such advances in manufacturing are also transforming other sectors that employ millions ofworkers. One is distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world's fastestsprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people.
Rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide array of manual jobswithin the abilities of robots. For example, Boeing's wide-body commercial jets are now rivetedautomatically by giant machines that move rapidly and precisely over the skin of the planes.
And at Earthbound Farms in California, four newly installed robot arms with customized suctioncups swiftly place clamshell containers of organic lettuce into shipping boxes. Each robotreplaces two to five workers at Earthbound.
A Robot Race Takes Shape
At an automation trade show last year in Chicago, Ron Potter, the director of roboticstechnology at an Atlanta consulting firm called Factory Automation Systems, offered anexample of a robotic manufacturing system that initially cost $250,000 and replaced twomachine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, themachines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.
Government officials and industry executives in the United States argue that even if factoriesare automated, they still are a valuable source of jobs. If the United States does not competefor advanced manufacturing in industries like consumer electronics, it could lose productengineering and design as well. Moreover, even though blue-collar jobs will be lost, moreefficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs in designing, operating and servicing theassembly lines.
And robot makers say their industry itself creates jobs. A report commissioned by theInternational Federation of Robotics last year found that 150,000 people are already employedby robotics manufacturers worldwide.
But American and European dominance in the next generation of manufacturing is uncertain. "What I see is that the Chinese are going to apply robots, too," said Frans van Houten, Philips'schief executive. "The window of opportunity to bring manufacturing back is before thathappens."
A Faster Assembly Line
At Tesla Motors in Fremont, California, on the edge of Silicon Valley, as many as eight robotsperform a ballet around each vehicle as it stops at each station along the production line forjust five minutes. The robot arms seem human when they reach over to a stand and changetheir "hand" to perform a different task. While the many robots in auto factories typicallyperform only one function, a Tesla robot might do up to four: welding, riveting, bonding andinstalling a component. Ultimately as many as 83 Tesla S electric luxury sedans a day will beproduced at the factory. When the company adds a sport utility vehicle next year, it will be builton the same assembly line, once the robots are reprogrammed.
Tesla's factory is tiny but represents a significant bet on flexible robots, one that could be amodel for the industry. And others are already thinking bigger.
Hyundai and Beijing Motors recently completed a mammoth factory outside Beijing that canproduce a million vehicles a year using more robots and fewer people than the big factories oftheir competitors and with the same flexibility as Tesla's, said Paul Chau, an American venturecapitalist at WI Harper.
Humans' Changing Role
In the decade since he began working as a warehouseman in Tolleson, Arizona, Josh Graveshas seen how automation systems can make work easier but also create new stress andinsecurity. The giant facility where he works distributes dry goods for Kroger supermarkets.
Mr. Graves, 29, went to work in the warehouse right out of high school. The demanding jobrequired lifting heavy boxes and the hours were long.
Today Mr. Graves drives a small forklift-like machine. He wears headsets and is instructed by acomputerized voice on where to go in the warehouse to gather or store products. A centralizedcomputer the workers call The Brain dictates their speed. Managers know exactly what theworkers do, to the precise minute.
Because workers are doing less physical labor, there are fewer injuries, said Rome Aloise, aTeamsters vice president in Northern California. Because a computer sets the pace, the stressis now more psychological.
Several years ago, Mr. Graves's warehouse installed a German system that automaticallystores and retrieves cases of food. That led to the elimination of 106 jobs, or 20 percent of thework force.
Now Kroger plans to build a highly automated warehouse in Tolleson.
"We don't have a problem with the machines coming," Mr. Graves told city officials. "But tellKroger we don't want to lose these jobs in our city."
Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs that require workers tomove in unpredictable settings and perform different tasks that are not repetitive; assemblywork that requires tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats or cars;and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made or where there are manyversions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots.
But that list is growing shorter.
In an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto, California, a robot armed with electronic "eyes" anda small scoop and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyorbelt.
The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft's Kinect motion sensing system for its Xboxvideo game system.
Such robots will put automation within range of companies like Federal Express and UnitedParcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of workers doing such tasks.
The start-up behind the robot, Industrial Perception Inc. of Menlo Park, California, will win itsfirst contract if its machine can move one box every four seconds. The engineers are confidentthat the robot will soon do much better than that, picking up and setting down one box persecond.
"We're on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution," said Gary Bradski,a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. "I think it's not as singularan event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet."