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 One hundred years later, fewer than 2% of U.S. workers are employed on farms, and those beasts of burden have been replaced by 5 million gas-powered tractors.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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