We noted in our previous post how Elkhart, Indiana now leads the nation in robots per capita. That opened us up to the broader topic of just where robots do, and don’t fit best. We noted how analyses reported on by The Wall Street Journal found that the most successful robot-implementing companies have found it best to assign “repetitive, precise tasks to robots, freeing human workers to undertake creative, problem-solving duties that machines aren’t very good at.“
The big question becomes, do robots displace workers, or do they simply take on more of the “repetitive tasks” so that humans can handle the higher-value work? In other words, do companies and their employees win or lose?
It turns out that at places like Robert Bosch in Germany and at BMW here in the U.S., letting robots take on the strenuous, dangerous and repetitive tasks have led to all-around benefits. For example, over the past decade of automation efforts, BMW has doubled its annual auto production at it Spartanburg, S.C. plant, while more than doubling its workforce – all while handling vastly more complex autos with five times the number of parts previously used. Clearly, that’s a win-win, both for the company and its employees.
Tesla has struggled a bit more with production of its Model 3 in Fremont, CA. There, the use of robots reportedly got “out of hand” and caused production bottlenecks, thus halving the number of cars that could be produced each week. One key mistake was for Tesla to try to automate much of the final assembly work, where everything has to come together. Put simply, they learned, automating in final assembly doesn’t work.
In the end, it is reported that robots have resulted in pay cuts for low-skilled machine operators and they have eliminated positions in some occupations, like simple manufacturing, especially where there aren’t value-added jobs for those workers to move to. For example, mining giant Rio Tinto is laying off drivers as it implements self-driving trucks which can operate longer than humans and are more reliable. Underground, robotic drilling rigs have taken over the dangerous work of inserting explosive in shafts.
Similarly, garment and footwear workers are losing their out to technological breakthroughs made on robots that increasingly have taken on more delicate tasks like manipulating pliable fabrics.
But at an “aggregate level” the jobs created by automation outnumber those being destroyed, according to analysis done at M.I.T. It’s just that those losing jobs are not necessarily the ones who are gaining those new jobs, as different skills are usually required. In the U.K. for example, 800,000 lower-skilled jobs have been lost to automation in the past 15 years, but automation has created 3.5 million higher-skilled ones, according to Deloitte. In Germany, industrial employment will rise nearly 2% by 2021 because robots are making the country’s factories more competitive.
The key, of course, is training. While indeed many newer, better, safer, less tedious an better paying jobs will be created by this current onslaught of automation, the challenge to businesses, schools and nations will be in how quickly they can adapt to this changing landscape and create the training programs, education and internships that will be required to handle this inevitable wave of innovation. It’s a challenge for everyone, and few jobs will be immune – but the ingenuity required and unleashed are sure to fulfill the dreams of the next generation for the course of the 21st century.