Can Robots Bring Manufacturing Jobs Back to the U.S.?

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Mick Tsikas / Reuters

Heading into the 20th century, America was a predominantly rural country. Roughly 40% of the nation’s labor force toiled on farms alongside 22 million work animals. One hundred years later, fewer than 2% of U.S. workers are employed on farms, and those beasts of burden have been replaced by 5 million gas-powered tractors.

Of course, the cause of this transformation was a technological revolution that lured workers from farms to more lucrative employment in urban areas. Simultaneously, farming became more efficient and needed less labor to produce the same amount of food.

The U.S. manufacturing sector has been going through a similar transformation over the past 70 years. Manufacturing employment peaked at nearly 40% of the non-farm workforce during World War II and has since fallen to roughly 9% of the working population, according to data from the Labor Department. The total number of manufacturing jobs has been more or less steadily decreasing since the late 1970s.

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But recently, something strange has been happening. In the past two years, manufacturing employment has actually increased by roughly half a million. The media has dubbed this new trend “reshoring,” whereby rising wages in the developing world, combined with escalating energy costs has made it more efficient in many cases for companies to make products in the U.S. that will ultimately be sold here.

Meanwhile there are others who think that robotics can help America make a more permanent play for manufacturing jobs. This may be a bit counterintuitive. After all, as robotics becomes more cost-effective, won’t machines do more of the work that humans are currently doing and therefore take those jobs? Not necessarily, according to Rodney Brooks, co-founder of Rethink Robots, a Boston-based robot manufacture. Rethink is releasing a new manufacturing robot called “Baxter,” which is equipped with sophisticated software that can help the machine actually learn tasks, recognize different objects and react intelligently to force.

Baxter is designed to help manufacturers automate tasks inside their factories so that human workers are free to do more complicated jobs. And at a price of $22,000, Baxter is much cheaper than traditional manufacturing robots and could even be cost effective for small manufacturers. Brooks told Bloomberg Businessweek:

“We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing this kind of work in China. We want companies to spend that here, in a way that lets American workers be way more productive.”

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Brooks argues that Baxter is inexpensive enough to do the kind of rote tasks that many firms are paying workers in developing countries to do. This way, manufacturers can keep their factories at home and stay competitive on price.

An economy where skilled workers are made more efficient by robots is not a new idea, of course. In a 2007 article in Scientific American, Microsoft founder Bill Gates predicted that we were on the verge of a robotics revolution that would hearken back to the personal computer revolution of his heyday. In the 1970s, Gates argued, computers were widely utilized by business, but they were tucked in backrooms away from human workers. It wasn’t until the advent of the personal computer that most office work was transformed into computer-facilitated tasks that increased a single worker’s productivity dramatically. Wrote Gates:

“When I talk to people involved in robotics … the level of excitement and expectation reminds me so much of that time when Paul Allen and I looked at the convergence of new technologies and dreamed of a day when a computer would be on every desk and in every home. And as I look at the trends that are now starting to converge, I can envision a future in which robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives.”

It’s exciting to contemplate the possibilities for American lives and businesses if Gates and Brooks are correct about the future of robotics. Robots available to the mass public could make our lives easier and businesses more efficient. But how will this affect employment in America? Can robots really revitalize manufacturing and bring back the sort of high-paying but limited-skill jobs that made the American middle class so vibrant in the post-World War II era? That’s unlikely. Robots like Baxter don’t solve the problem of having too few jobs that pay well enough to allow low-skilled workers to raise a family comfortably.

Indeed, the problem of U.S. manufacturing isn’t that the manufacturing sector is hurting. It’s actually thriving. Manufacturing output – the total worth of goods manufactured in the U.S. – has increased steadily over the last several decades, except for intermittent dips during recessions. The problem with manufacturing is that it used to be a place where lower-skilled workers could go to make a decent living. Having even more work done by robots will make the global economy more efficient. More goods will be produced with less. But the fundamental problem of our age is figuring out how we distribute the gains of this efficiency in a way that everyone can get a decent piece of the pie. Baxter won’t solve that.

Income inequality is a growing problem in America and in much of the developed world, and one of the main factors promoting it is the lack of good paying jobs for lower-skilled workers. The rise and fall of both agricultural and manufacturing employment show how a modern capitalist economy, through technology, can make production more efficient, freeing up workers for more productive and sometimes more rarified tasks. Aristotle once said, “When the looms can operate themselves, all men will be free.” A heartwarming thought, but is it realistic? The truly troubling question of the coming age of robotics is how will the men who don’t own the machines provide for themselves?

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24 comments
Charles Edward Brown
Charles Edward Brown

Robots in a factory are just a tool like any other tool.  Building things that people want to buy at a price they can afford is the key to improving factory jobs in the US. I do think that old ideas about factory employees need to change. The factories of the future will need a lot specially trained people who should be earning benefits and middle class salaries rather than minimum wage, but they will be worth their weight in gold for their productivity and the amazing things they will be creating.

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

There's a reason why Hon Hai Precision Industry, Ltd.--the corporate head of Foxconn--is spending a fortune on developing robotic production processes. 

With true robotic parts assembly, Foxconn could manufacture consumer electronic products almost anywhere in the world at reasonable cost. That could make it possible for Apple to start assembling the iPhone and iPad even in the USA at a surprisingly low per-unit cost. 

landofaahs
landofaahs

High paying but limited job skills?  It will free us up to...be on welfare and food stamps?   I would be more impressed with a tax code that gave a double deduction for human labor costs excluding CEO's of course. 

The only answer to our current problems are collapse and regeneration. Sadly. 

NotThereYet
NotThereYet

When people talk about reviving manufacturing, they usually refer to the rust belt and American jobs. To bring back "manufacturing" with robots designed and made in a foreign country, is an oxymoron.

rampantlion
rampantlion

Rethink Robots, Kiva Systems (now owned by Amazon), iRobot--all American robot manufacturers. While many industrial robots are foreign, the next phase of robotics (more human-friendly, dexterious assemblers) includes the American companies. Kiva and Rethink are especially exciting--they are more likely to bring some manufacturing back to the US. Just don't expect a whole lot of jobs coming back, though. In a different article, the Rethink folks estimated the approximate equivalent salary per hour that Baxter would cost: $4 per hour. That should scare the Chinese!

Starshiprarity
Starshiprarity

This Luddite arugment is older than the Luddites themselves. Yes, a robot that builds cars takes away a job from a man who makes cars. But at the same time, it reduces the cost of manufacturing so much that now more people can afford the product. Money is liberated and goes to other parts of the economy where new jobs are created to replace the initial loss. The money has to go somewhere- the trick is to redistribute it properly so it doesn't end up in an investment account of some 1%er isntead of in the proper economy.

BuyDirectUSA
BuyDirectUSA

Robots could bring more jobs in a few way the building and maintaining of them by American workers are two ways. Not to mention the use of automation could help reduce prices overall.  That being said, we must as a nation have the capacity to be as self sufficient as possible. Our legislators nee3d to create some changes that will help reduce the trade balance and encourage US Manufacturing. They should even go as far as informing Americans the importance of buying Made in the USA over imports.  Americans want and need jobs.

whostheliar
whostheliar

Yeah, keep justifying robotic use as a tool for manufacturing and whatever else you want to say. I mean, it's not like they won't have learning software installed or anything. Self-diagnosis? So, what then is the human role?

Hospitals are using genetic software/disease symptom/blood work amp; everything else to basically eliminate doctors already. What makes people think anyone would think robotics would be different? Algorithms in markets to predict trends. Learning software etc etc. Get the point? 

But since technology will eliminate basically 90% of all well paid careers, who will pay for this and who will have the money to use it or buy whatever is being sold? It completely devalues every asset we understand in the monetary system. Why pay for anything anymore with whatever money you have? What's the point at that point? Then the economy becomes jobs paid at a rate that barely justifies the cost of advanced technology as applied in our daily lives. What does that mean? Slavery basically.

Advancements is self learning technology applied to robotics = no more use for humans.

efrustrated
efrustrated

Gee, your glass really is half empty isn't it? Do remember not to invite me round for dinner, I think I'll just nip off and slit my wrists!

Good job humans are rather more adaptable than you give them credit for.

csnord
csnord

It seems simple enough: Don't produce low skill workers. Effective education would be nice. To bad we don't have that.

cjacja
cjacja

The problem is that people with only low level skills can't make much money.  I can't imagine how this will ever change and it will only get worse.   Only two things I canthink of

(1) We work hard to build schools that teach skills needed in the 21st century, like design, engineering and medical.   

(2) Tell the others that if you really want one of those Chinese manufacturing jobs so bad, move to China.  They will get you that job just for the asking in a minute.   

charlituna
charlituna

O-bots haven't managed during this administration -

maybe robots can.

vstillwell
vstillwell

Simple: Raise the minimum wage. Geesh. This isn't rocket science. People today work full-time jobs and still live in poverty. That's not what America is supposed to be about. This country was not founded on some libertarian wet dream fantasy. 

InActionMan
InActionMan

 Increasing minimum wage will only encourage employers to automate and out source more jobs.

What is needed is a real commitment to small businesses. We need industrial policy that promotes business incubators and entrepreneurial training for adults and children.

There simply aren't going to be many jobs in the future for anyone without at least an an associates degree or a trade like plumbing.

Yacko
Yacko

You know how Republicans want everybody to have skin in the game, everybody to pay some income tax? How can they expect someone, who is not paid a living wage, to pay such a tax? What's next? Don't pay the tax and you go to debtors prison?

Randolph Crawford
Randolph Crawford

I think the right way to look at robots is, they're simply a more advanced tool, like the electric drill or the electric light bulb.  They speed production and/or reduce its cost.  As robots become cheaper, the jobs they profitably replace will be lower and lower waged.  This will continue as long as the tradeoff is worthwhile to the business owner and advancement in technology makes it possible.  I suspect 50% of white collar jobs can be replaced within the next 30 years.  Perhaps 30 years after that, advances in technology will erase the remaining high-end white collar low-end menial manual menial jobs.  By 2100, few jobs should remain.  Thus with most of today's children losing all prospects for employment within their lifetime, the likely insolvency of the US government, and the impending problems arising from global climate change, the 21st century promises to be a bumpy ride.

althotos
althotos

We, the United States, along with a  handful of other Western nations led the rest of the world in manufacturing and technology for the 1st half of the 20th century. However, over the 2nd half of the 20th century, Asian economies caught up to us and began to manufacture goods at a lower cost. This is classic Macroeconomics - the country that can produce the goods at the lowest cost wins. 

What about us? Will manufacturing jobs return to the United States? No, they won't. Will the low-skilled or unskilled worker be able to get a good paying job like his grandfather did in the mid-20th century? No, he won't. Those kind of jobs are gone. So what kind of future does a low-skilled worker have, especially if he has a high-school education or even less. He really doesn't have much of a future, because the only kind of jobs he can get is in the service industry like waiting on tables or working at the local Walmart as a stocker or cashier. These are all low-paying jobs with no future.

So, how do we get the well-paying jobs back, that is the question.

Trying to get manufacturing back is a lost cause. Instead, we need to focus on education and training for jobs of the 21st century like technology, the health industry and the information society. We should have started this 30 years ago, with public policy aimed at getting that generation ready for today's jobs. We fell down on that responsibility, which is why we have a generation of people with unemployable skills who cannot work in high tech sectors and in the knowledge industry. Can these people be re-trained? I doubt it. 

I am a  knowledge worker with 30 years in the computer industry. Who is going to replace me, because I'll be getting out of this line of work in the next 10 years? IT and computers have been very good to me, but I was lucky and blessed that what started out as a hobby 30 years ago became my meal ticket. Our industry, the knowledge industry, continues to be wide open and jobs are a plenty, if you have the right skill sets. We are  not producing enough people for this industry or the other high tech industries for the 21st century. 

It starts with education and training. We need public policy from our leaders in government and industry to start in the primary and secondary school level. All children, such as my 10 year old, need to be adept at using computers, tablets and other information devices. These are the tools they will be using, mostly when they enter the workforce. Science and technology need to be part of the core curriculum as are reading, writing and arithmetic. All children must graduate with a high-school diploma. There must be a structured post-secondary path available that allows students who do not or cannot go to college to have the ability to acquire skills through training programs, which will allow them earn a good living. Look to Germany as a model, but not necessarily the only one. 

Although 4 years of college does not guarantee a good job or even employability, for the first time in this "Great Recession" we are seeing lower unemployment among college-educated workers than those without college. So, a college education can only help you and not hurt you in your employment prospects. Think about it. If an employer has a choice to fill the job for a candidate with a high-school education and one with a college degree, who do you think he's going to pick? Exactly. However, not all high-school graduates may have the ability or have the desire to put in 4 years of academic sweat and toil for that college diploma. For them, we need alternative training programs which will allow them a path to a secure future in jobs of the 21s century.  I don't have these answers, but I am sure that minds far more brilliant than mine probably have some ideas.

SteveKaKa
SteveKaKa

George responded I'm taken by surprise that you can earn $5237 in 4 weeks on the network. have you look this(Click on menu Home)

Aubree Arias
Aubree Arias

How about this perspective. The U.S. engages in mass Ramp;D of robotics, knowing that they can far outperform human workers in 95% (made up stat, but I'm sure it is up there) manufacturing processes. Robotics can do all these manufacturing processes for cheaper than human labor anywhere on the planet, with far fewer errors. Then we train our citizens to maintain, operate, and handle the other 5% of the manufacturing process. They are then skilled robot techs and operators. 

Then add in energy independence to this mix (robots use a lot of energy). So we get take Germany's lead, and start Ramp;D on solar, becoming the foremost innovative and implementing country of this infinite energy source. Germany already produces more solar energy than 20 nuclear plants at max output. The technology could follow Moore's law, and then we could get to the point where ALL our energy needs (minus vehicles for the time being) are handled by solar, and other renewables, making our manufacturing even CHEAPER. We could then be THE source for all manufacturing in the world as we continue to innovate both our robotics, human resources to maintain and operate them, and renewable energy sources. Make it so.

Yacko
Yacko

And the rest of the world, now unemployed, riots. And fights. Better hope they can't get to US shores.

"Then we train our citizens to maintain, operate, and handle the other 5%

of the manufacturing process. They are then skilled robot techs and

operators."

The 20-1 ratio you posit and which I agree with, cannot create enough human jobs no matter the growth rate if you realize:

1. Our manufacturing sector is still quite large. It accounts for about 17 million jobs about 1 out of 6 jobs in the US. The robot manufacturing phenomenon will also cannibalize US jobs sucking 15-16 million of those jobs into a black hole of robotics.

2. Our population continues to grow and if the 1.5 million manufacturing jobs left need to grow back to the 15 million or so plus another half million a year, you can see that manufacturing would have to grow at a crazy unrealistic rate or it will take at least a couple of decades.

You also have to realize that automation will hurt other industries, teaching, finance, service industries, delivery services and anything to do with driving like cabs and mass transit. You see, robots are not just physical entities. All this will happen through more an more use of artificial intelligence systems.

And that's given today's level of AI, just imagine when they get really good. Imagine if they get intelligent enough to create their own economy, buy and sell to each other and cut us out of the loop. First it will be a post-job world and then a post-human one.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Can robots bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.?

If, by robots, you are referring to Romney, the answer is no. His history is in outsourcing American jobs overseas.

If you are referring to Obama's ongoing effort to help bring American jobs back to this country by increasing government efforts to educate our workforce and modernize our plants, the answer is yes.

Manmohan Manu
Manmohan Manu

Informative article. I work for McGladrey and there's a annual report on the State of Manufacturing on the website  " http://bit.ly/IzVhuU  ", with related information you may find useful.