The Truth About Robotics: Impact of Robotics on Employment
excerpt from a white paper by Seegrid
The state of robotics today has real-world applications, impacting employment, safety, quality, productivity, efficiency and competitiveness.
ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, defines an industrial robot as an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes. Leaders at Carnegie Mellon University have suggested that the field of robotics may be more practically defined as the study, design and use of robot systems for manufacturing.
Typical applications of robots include transportation, welding, painting, assembly, picking and placing products, packaging and palletizing, product inspection and testing. All of these robotic tasks are accomplished with high endurance, speed and precision.
Robots taking over the plant floor
Most robots are designed to be a helping hand or a high-tech tool. They help with tasks that would be difficult, unsafe, boring or repetitive for a human to perform. The first industrial robots performed tasks that were "Hot, Heavy or Hazardous" – the three-H’s – performing tasks that were too difficult or too dangerous for people. Robots exhibit varying degrees of autonomous behavior; many robots are programmed to faithfully carry out specific repetitive actions without variation and with an extremely high degree of accuracy. These actions are determined by programmed routines that specify the direction, acceleration, velocity, deceleration and distance of a series of coordinated motions. Sometimes they mimic the motions of humans exactly, and other times they improve upon it, moving faster, more precisely or more smoothly than humans.
Some industrial robots have increased flexibility regarding the positioning and orientation of the object on which they are operating, or even the overall task that has to be performed. Industrial robots often use precise guidance; many contain machine vision sub-systems linked to powerful computers or controllers. Artificial intelligence, which still is perceived as science fiction, actually is becoming an increasingly important factor in the modern-day, more adaptable industrial robot.
Robots are used to assemble products, handle dangerous materials, weld metal, spray finishes, inspect parts, fabricate components, assist in operating rooms and even manage livestock. Robots are used for cutting and polishing as well as welding. The scope and range of robots and usage will continue to grow and expand. Accepting this truth is based on embracing inevitable change.
Histrionics versus history
The cry of the fearful has been that robots will be job killers, taking away good jobs from people in need of work. Even today, robots frequently are vilified and considered the cause for causal to high unemployment rates. The historical data does not substantiate these claims. In fact, the historical trends reflect job shifts rather than job elimination. The events of 9/11 created an agency that employs 50,000 security officers, inspectors, directors, air marshals and managers who protect the nation’s transportation systems so people can travel safely. TSA.gov is a direct response to a historical event that created jobs for people to look for bombs at checkpoints in airports, inspect rail cars, patrol subways with law enforcement partners and work to make all modes of transportation safer.
Similarly, prior to the development of the highway and railway system in the United States, the need for barns, blacksmiths and covered wagons was significant and employed many people. New technologies drive new job requirements and skills. The composition of the current workforce is changing rapidly due to the urgency and expectations that accompany these robotic technologies. In the 1970s and 80s when manufacturing started to shift from the USA to Japan, Japan employed ten times as many robots as the USA with nearly zero unemployment. The utilization of robots, information processing and automation raises productivity, making companies more competitive globally and increasing their opportunities to grow and employ more workers. Companies that do not increase productivity become less competitive and MUST shed jobs to protect the bottom line.
Will robots reduce the need for some warehouse workers and manufacturing plant floor employees? Yes, that is the truth. Will other jobs replace the functions assumed by robots? Yes, that also is the truth. Just as the requirements of the soldier of WWII were namely the ability to lift a certain weight and shoot a gun, today’s military personnel are highly trained, highly skilled and adept beyond the imagination of Brokaw’s, "Greatest Generation" of warriors and American heroes. Similarly, the factory or warehouse worker of tomorrow will not be needed for the ability to lift heavy packages, but for the ability to find the most efficient way to satisfy the customers’ needs.
Robots create more jobs
The population in almost every developed nation is aging. People are living far beyond their retirement age. The multi-generational household is a thing of the past. This aging, retired, leisure-seeking population will need more services and support. Instead of working at repetitive jobs, people will be employed to support, interact with or care for the newly retired or elderly. Additionally, as productivity increases, there is more spending available for leisure activities such as travel, the arts and outdoor activities; these will all drive new opportunities in businesses we are not even thinking about yet. Who would have believed five years ago the thousands of jobs created by the concept of "social networking"?
Other workers will be deployed to positions of greater efficiency, effectiveness and optimized productivity. The shift in workforce needs is part of American history and will continue because we live in a dynamic society and social structure.
Robots are not the cause or blame for these workplace shifts. In fact, robotics has created an entire new workforce dynamic. Although difficult to quantify, Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals that robotic companies are employing more than one million Americans in the material handling, manufacturing and best-practice plant management industries. A study conducted by Metra Martech, a market research firm, concluded two to three million jobs created in the world of manufacturing were due to robotics. Furthermore, Metra Martech foresees 700,000 to 1 million new jobs to be created by robots in the next four years.
According to Jerome A. Mark, in a paper prepared for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Studies indicate that the pace of technological change varies considerably by industry; affected workers are more likely to be transferred to new jobs. Technological change and its impact on the work force have become a focus of attention in the United States and abroad. The innovations include advanced communication systems, industrial robots, flexible manufacturing systems, computer-assisted design (CAD) and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM). These modern technologies incorporate powerful and low-cost microelectronic devices that have the potential to increase productivity in office and factory production tasks. They share widespread appeal and are being diffused throughout the world. Some experts say that the pace of technological change is accelerating and that thousands of workers in plants and offices are affected as laborsaving innovations are diffused more widely. Some analysts assert that technological change is beneficial for all groups in our society, that the changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature."