In a recent article (APICS Magazine, Sep/Oct ’15) entitled “Job Ready” by Ingrid Ostby, the author asserts that the real value in the continuing emergence of robots in manufacturing has little to do with completely replacing human workers. As Mike Cicco, GM at robot maker FANUC notes, the early concerns about robots had to do with “taking someone’s job.” Today he says it’s about making processes safer and increasing productivity. And therein lies the upside.
Cicco goes on to describe a sort of double edged sword – but one that includes an important upside. While Cicco admits that it’s true that “employment goes down because of the fact that you get rid of operators when you replace those with robots,” he also adds that “You still need the managers [and] the machine technicians. You add robotic programmers and robotic technicians, and… although the low-skilled labor rates do go down, you increase your production so much that you end up needing more technicians and more managers.”
As Ostby’s article points out, “robotics-focused positons are more satisfying than many other manufacturing jobs because of higher pay and more rewarding work experiences.” And with modern manufacturing facilities now being built with more robots in mind, there are more conveyors, cylinders and sensors – all requiring still more technicians and programmers to maintain them.
The article goes on to note a 2014 study by PwC that shows in robotics-heavy industries, employment has gone up 20% compared with those companies that incorporate fewer robots in manufacturing.
One of the main drivers of all this automation is increasing productivity… gaining an edge on global competition. Robotic automation helps augment getting your manufacturing closer to your customer, the article notes. Plus, with today’s increasingly flexible (as in reconfigurable) robotics designs, production changeovers are easier than ever before, as they cite the example of being able to quickly switch from making, say, a round cookie to a square one, should consumer preferences change.
Today’s robots are the safest ever, and can now work closer to human workers than ever before. At the same time, they can carry out the most onerous tasks (the 3 Ds: dull, dirty, dangerous) – and do them at dramatically higher levels of efficiency, accuracy and quality – all with a greater degree of safety.
Robots today replace high scrap rates and mind-numbing tasks with high levels of quality and repeatability. In the end, it leads to fewer low-skill jobs, it’s true, but the high road opportunity is one of increased workplace sophistication and job satisfaction, due to the programming, maintenance and high-skill requirements that will come of working in a truly automated, efficient, production-focused facility.
Besides, in the end, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Today’s challenge is to take competitive advantage of the newest technologies while using that edge to create ever more skilled, higher-paying jobs for today’s automation workers.