Skilled Work, Without the Worker
DRACHTEN, the Netherlands - At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.
At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.
One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break - three shifts a day, 365 days a year.
All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.
This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.
"With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world," said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.
Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips's approach is gaining ground on Apple's. Even as Foxconn, Apple's iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones,
it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: "As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache."
And from the conclusion:
Inside a spartan garage in an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif., a robot armed with electronic "eyes" and a small scoop and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt.
It is doing what low-wage workers do every day around the world.
Older robots cannot do such work because computer vision systems were costly and limited to carefully controlled environments where the lighting was just right. But thanks to an inexpensive stereo camera and software that lets the system see shapes with the same ease as humans, this robot can quickly discern the irregular dimensions of randomly placed objects.
The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft's Kinect motion sensing system for its Xbox video game system.
Such robots will put automation within range of companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of workers doing such tasks.
The start-up behind the robot, Industrial Perception Inc., is the first spinoff of Willow Garage, an ambitious robotics research firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. The first customer is likely to be a company that now employs thousands of workers to load and unload its trucks. The workers can move one box every six seconds on average. But each box can weigh more than 130 pounds, so the workers tire easily and sometimes hurt their backs.
Industrial Perception will win its contract if its machine can reliably move one box every four seconds. The engineers are confident that the robot will soon do much better than that, picking up and setting down one box per second.
"We're on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution," said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. "I think it's not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet."
David Fuller's view Robotic assembly has been with us for several decades, slowly improving year after year. Now the process is accelerating, thanks to super-fast processors and increasingly sophisticated software. I think the rate of development in robotics is now on the cusp of exponential growth, just as we have seen with computers and communications devices.
This is genuine manufacturing progress of unprecedented speed and proportion. It will increase quality and greatly reduce costs, improving profits for successful enterprises. It will considerably nullify the low wage advantage of developing countries, although they too can benefit from robotics. Yes, robotics is playing its part in levelling the playing field in terms of costs, bringing more manufacturing back to developed countries in the process.
As the cost of manufacturing becomes less of a factor from country to country, companies will be able to produce goods in closer proximity to their component suppliers and especially their customers. Also, competitive rates of taxation will remain a crucial factor in attracting manufacturing sites. Successful Autonomies will thrive more than ever in this environment.
The social problems of permanently high unemployment are daunting and no more likely to be resolved by Luddite policies in the era of robotics than at any other time in human history. Far greater vision will be required to deal with this problem than we have seen to date. If we think about it, there is very little in the way of human endeavour that future generations of robots will not be able to do more successfully than people, aside from recreational pursuits. We will always enjoy social sciences, the arts in their various forms and sport.