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Who Will Benefit from Manufacturing Re-shoring – Robots?

October 22, 2012

“But consider–A robot with a positronic brain would mimic human intelligence.

If there were a horse or a dog that could speak and reason like a human being, there would be competitiveness there, too. Human beings might be all the more distrustful and angry at such unexpected competition from what they consider a lower form of life.” – ASIMOV (in ‘That Thou Art Mindful of Him’)

Even as we lament the unavailability of skilled labor in manufacturing; human ingenuity is moving towards the obvious alternative – using robotics. What would be the implications for the American job market as a result?  Will there be an opportunity for unskilled persons to move up the value chain – as more skilled labor would be required to operate the machines, at a higher pay? Or, will it require a different set of skills, eliminating all those who are currently employed in the sector, pushing them further down the ladder to minimum wage jobs? Would the end of a specific requirement for labor herald the beginning of another? If so, what would be the lag in time, and what kind of changes would be called for? This is the billion, or rather trillion dollar question!

So, how much labor requirement would be there in manufacturing, when we factor in the use of robots on shop floors and assembly lines? Robots can  perform tasks like welding, assembly, operating dangerous tools, and material handling; untiringly turning the jobs into 24x7x365 affairs. According to the World Industrial Robotics 2011 report, there were 1,035,000 operational industrial robots by the end of 2010; while the number is estimated to reach 1,308,000 by the end of 2014.

Obviously, there would be jobs in the robotics industry’s assembly lines, and in their design, operation and servicing. Even if robots were to become a ubiquitous part of workplaces; all they would be handling will be the repetitive and tiresome work or hard labor. Some of them may be able to handle work requiring precision, but their capabilities would still be a far cry from what Asimov’s robots could perform.

What Robots in the workplace Offer:

There is no doubt that robots in a workplace could offer a number of advantages, of course, with some disadvantages thrown in.

  • Handle dangerous tasks and work with life-threatening compounds to accomplish work fraught with risk.
  • Handle heavy equipment and hot materials with flexibility and precision.
  • Do boring, repetitive jobs alone, without fatigue-related incidents. Be able to work 24x7x365 – without any overtime pay or protests from workers or unions.

The disadvantages they come with will have to be factored in when deciding to deploy them on any task:

  • High price, which may not always support a business case to replace human labor with a robot.
  • Incapable of making decisions required for exception or non-standard work steps..
  • Will not show an iota of improvement by learning on the job.
  • Cannot adapt to changes by varying the process.

These qualities of a robot make it imperative for employers to ensure that the task is specially suited to be handled by a robot.  In other words, not all jobs can be taken over by robots; which at this time is the answer, for anyone who thinks it is easy for robots to replace human beings and impact the job market very negatively.  Properly applied, the increased use of robotics can rebuild America’s manufacturing base by erasing the cost advantages provided by cheap labor markets while providing increased opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled workers.


Disclaimer:
The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.

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