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August 30, 2012

New Wave of automation and the future of jobs

NY Times - 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. The dutch factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.

At an automation trade show last year in Chicago, Ron Potter, the director of robotics technology at an Atlanta consulting firm called Factory Automation Systems, offered attendees a spreadsheet to calculate how quickly robots would pay for themselves.

In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.



Robot arms like those at a Philips Electronics factory in the Netherlands can perform the same tasks as hundreds of low-skill workers.


While the many robots in auto factories typically perform only one function, in the new Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., a robot might do up to four: welding, riveting, bonding and installing a component.


The next generation of robots for manufacturing will be more flexible and easier to train.

Witness the factory of Tesla Motors, which recently began manufacturing the Tesla S, a luxury sedan, in Fremont, Calif., on the edge of Silicon Valley.

More than half of the building is shuttered, called “the dark side.” It still houses a dingy, unused Toyota Corolla assembly line on which an army of workers once turned out half a million cars annually.

Not just Manufacturing but Distribution

Traditional and futuristic systems working side by side in a distribution center north of New York City show how robotics is transforming the way products are distributed, threatening jobs. From this warehouse in Newburgh, C & S, the nation’s largest grocery wholesaler, supplies a major supermarket chain.

The old system sprawls across almost half a million square feet. The shelves are loaded and unloaded around the clock by hundreds of people driving pallet jacks and forklifts. At peak times in the evening, the warehouse is a cacophony of beeping and darting electric vehicles as workers with headsets are directed to cases of food by a computer that speaks to them in four languages.

The new system is much smaller, squeezed into only 30,000 square feet at the far end of the warehouse and controlled by just a handful of technicians. They watch over a four-story cage with different levels holding 168 “rover” robots the size of go-carts. Each can move at 25 miles an hour, nearly as fast as an Olympic sprinter.

EBN Online - Amazon is leading the way to reducing the number people in distribution centers and Amazon bought robot-maker Kiva Systems last spring for $775 million.



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.

Foxconn robots and new manufacturing plants

Foxconn plans to add one million industrial robots at a cost of $50 billion for the new wave of plants over the next three years Hon Hai and its massive Foxconn unit employ an estimated 961,000 workers, chiefly in China, assembling electronic goods such as Apple iPods, Hewlett-Packard personal computers, Motorola cellphones and Nintendo video game consoles.

Example of a Noodle Chef Robot

Noodle robots went into mass production this past March and are going for about 13,000 Chinese yuan – or about $2,000 – each.

The robot’s actually rather tall and imposing, which suggests that the robot requires a good amount of hardware beneath that superhero exterior (even if, I’m going to assume, the head is just for show). Over 3,000 have already been sold, which means the robotic noodle-slicing revolution is on


Rage against the machine book forecasts rapid joblosses to automation

Rage against the machine is a book and blog about rapid job losses to automation

Total workforce participation is down but there is a recession and babyboomers are retiring

Where is job growth?

There is job growth in healthcare. (59 million people in healthcare facilities around the world)

There are an estimated 388 million entrepreneurs around the world

There are about 11 million high net worth individuals around the world.

Presumably a strategy is to be able to build your own business or get wealthy enough to not need a job.

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