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Talking Points: Robots are here to help with jobs, not take them

Issue: May 2017

It is a lot to ask, but we need the manufacturers of automation equipment and robots to save the nation’s manufacturing economy.

Think about it like this:

U.S. productivity fell last year. That means we produced less with a given amount of labor and capital.

Increasing the use of automation, including robots, enables manufacturers to produce more goods — which makes them more competitive at home and abroad.

A manufacturer that is competitive will grow, expand the business and hire and pay more workers.

I’ve been thinking about automation since I attended the Automate 2017 show last month in Chicago. This busy event drew twice as many exhibitors as the last show in 2015.

Ron Shinn, editor

The buzz among exhibitors was to what extent deployment of automation is being dampened by the idea that robots are replacing American workers. Inexpensive collaborative robots that can work alongside humans are cast as the boogeyman by those making this argument. And clearly no company wants to have the anti-job-creation finger pointing its way these days.

Let’s set the record straight: Robots take away jobs that are best suited for robots so skilled workers can do the work that they can best do.

The Association for Advancing Automation released a white paper last month revealing that during the seven years between 2010 and 2016, 136,748 robots were shipped to U.S. customers, yet manufacturing employment increased by 894,000 workers.

“Multiple studies continue to show no relationship between a country’s use of robots and loss of manufacturing jobs,” according to the white paper.

The owner of an injection molding company that employs three collaborative robots was emphatic in making the point that his robots freed up workers to do more interesting jobs in the plant. “No jobs were lost,” he said at Automate.  

I posed the question to Esben Hallundbæk Østergaard, inventor of collaborative robots and founder and CTO of Universal Robots in Denmark. Universal Robots has a 60 percent worldwide market share for collaborative robots.

Østergaard admitted that the notion of robots taking away jobs is a hot topic all over the world.

“If you consider work to be taking a part out of a machine and putting it into a box, then that work will probably disappear,” Østergaard said. “But if you consider work as creating value for your customer, or optimizing the flow of manufacturing, or redesigning packaging — all more human kinds of value creation —  then there will be more work and not less.”

Østergaard said he has seen examples all over the world where companies have added robots, which led to expanding the business.

“A collaborative robot is a tool that enables a worker to do his job more efficiently,” he said.  “It reduces manual labor but grows the business.”

He also said that robots are useful in achieving the quality demanded in the global marketplace.

Robots and automation should get credit for reshoring, he said.

“Premature deindustrialization describes what has happened to the countries that were expected to gain manufacturing once it became too expensive in China,” he said. “But those countries have now lost manufacturing output because it is moving back to Western countries. The decision on where to put your next factory has changed a little bit.”

Labor unions in Denmark and Germany have embraced collaborative robots, according to Østergaard. “They see it as the way forward.”

Nigel Smith, president of TM Robotics (Americas) Inc. and CEO of TM Robotics worldwide, said that robots are commonplace in Europe and the market there is saturated, but “the U.S. hasn’t even looked at them yet.

“If American companies don’t automate, their products will become more expensive,” he said. “It can keep jobs in the U.S.”

He pointed to the United Kingdom as an example. “Ten to 15 years ago, the U.K. lost manufacturing plants to Eastern Europe,” Smith said. “If the U.K. companies had decided to automate, half of those companies would still be manufacturing in the U.K.”

So, can automation companies develop new products that will excite U.S. companies enough to become more automated? Østergaard and Smith both think so.

“China and Southeast Asia are the biggest markets for robots now,” Smith said. “But we are very excited about the market in North America.”

Østergaard said he sees U.S. manufacturers reconsidering robots. In the early days of robotics, a plant owner needed an integrator to program a robot. “It was his factory floor, but not his machine, since he could not touch it,” Østergaard said. “He had to call another company every time he wanted to make adjustments. He hated that.”

Robot manufacturers have created some exciting, easy-to-use products, but they need to keep nudging the industry to take another look.

Ron Shinn, editor