Robot makers spread global gospel of automation

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jan 28 2013, 08:22am hrs
John Markoff

The robot equipment industry has one word for the alarmist articles and television news programmes that predict a robot is about to steal your job: Fiddlesticks!

Well, that wasnt actually the word used last week at the Automate 2013 trade show held in Chicago, but the sentiment was the same. During a presentation, Henrik I Christensen, the Kuka Chair of Robotics at Georgia Institute of Technologys College of Computing, sharply criticised a recent 60 Minutes report on automation that was based on the work of the MIT economists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson.

The two economists in 2011 wrote Race Against the Machine, a book that renewed the debate about the relationship between the pace of automation and job growth. They argue that the pace of automation is accelerating and that robotics is pushing into new areas of the work force like white-collar jobs that were previously believed to be beyond the scope of computers.

During his talk, Christensen said that the evidence indicated that the opposite was true. While automation may transform the work force and eliminate certain jobs, it also creates new kinds of jobs that are generally better paying and that require higher-skilled workers. We see today that the US is still the biggest manufacturing country in terms of dollar value, Christensen said. Its also important to remember that manufacturing produces more jobs in associated areas than anything else.

An official of the International Federation of Robotics acknowledged that the automation debate had sprung back to life in the United States, but he said that America was alone in its anxiety over robots and automation. This is not happening in either Europe or Japan, said Andreas Bauer, chairman of the federations industrial robot suppliers group and an executive at Kuka Robotics, a German robot maker.

To buttress its claim that automation is not a job killer but instead a way for the United States to compete against increasingly advanced foreign competitors, the industry group reported findings last week that it said it would publish in February. The federation said the industry would directly and indirectly create from 1.9 million to 3.5 million jobs globally by 2020.

Automation has allowed us to compete on a global basis. It has absolutely created jobs in southwest Michigan, said Matt Tyler, chief executive of Vickers Engineering, an auto parts supplier. Had it not been for automation, we would not have beat our Japanese competitor; we would not have beat our Chinese competitor; we would not have beat our Mexican competitor. Its a fact.

Also making the case was Drew Greenblatt, the widely quoted president and owner of Marlin Steel, a Baltimore manufacturer of steel products that has managed to expand and add jobs by deploying robots and other machines to increase worker productivity. In December, we won a job from a Chicago company that for over a decade has bought from China, he said. Its a sheet-metal bracket; 160,000 sheet-metal brackets, year in, year out. They were made in China, now theyre made in Baltimore, using steel from a plant in Indiana and the robot was made in Connecticut.

A German robotics engineer argued that automation was essential to preserve jobs and also vital to make it possible for national economies to support social programmes. Countries that have high productivity can afford to have a good social system and a good health system, said Alexander Verl, head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering in Germany. You see that to some extent in Germany or in Sweden. These are countries that are highly automated but at the same time they spend money on elderly care and the health system.

In the report presented by the federation, the United States lags Germany, South Korea and Japan in the density of manufacturing robots employed (measured as the number of robots per 10,000 human workers). South Korea, in particular, sharply increased its robot-to-worker ratio in the last three years and Germany has twice the robot density as the United States, according to a presentation made by John Dulchinos, a board member of the Robot Industries Association and the chief executive of Adept Technology, a Pleasanton, Calif., maker of robots.

The report indicates that although China and Brazil are increasing the number of robots in their factories, they still trail the advanced manufacturing countries. Dulchinos said that the United States had only itself to blame for the decline of its manufacturing sector in the last decade.

I can tell you that in the late 1990s my companys biggest segment was the cellular phone market, he said. Almost overnight that industry went away, in part because we didnt do as good a job as was required to make that industry competitive.

He said that if American robots had been more advanced it would have been possible for those companies to maintain the lowest cost of production in the United States. They got all packed up and shipped to China, Dulchinos said. And so you fast-forward to today and there are over a billion cellphones produced a year and not a single one is produced in the US.

Yet, in the face of growing anxiety about the effects of automation on the economy, there were a number of bright spots. The industry is now generating $25 billion in annual revenue. The federation expects 1.6 million robots to be produced each year by 2015.