The Economy & You #53: Can a Robot Save American Manufacturing?
There have been numerous articles talking about the future of American manufacturing and whether we as a nation will ever return to a position of dominance in the production of goods. Recently an article appeared in TIME Magazine that caught my eye. The article spoke about how the United States was, for the most part, an agricultural nation that saw most of its citizens working on farms. On those farms were various animals that helped with the planting and harvesting of crops. Today, those animals have been replaced by machines. The reason for this change was that workers left the farm to take higher paying manufacturing jobs in the city.
American manufacturing is going through a similar transition. While manufacturing employment was strong following World War II, the percentage of workers in manufacturing has declined since the 1970s to a level where only 9% of the labor force is in manufacturing today.
There are various arguments as to why U.S. manufacturing began its decline. One popular opinion is that American manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas to countries where the labor cost is considerably lower. The country seen as the prime example is China. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing labor costs in China are 4% of the United States (2009 data, http://bls.gov/fls/home.htm). The United States has experienced a decline in manufacturing jobs while China has seen a large increase.
So how do robots factor into a resurgence of American manufacturing? While one may think that robots would only lead to further declines in manufacturing jobs, the idea of American manufacturers being able to utilize machines for simple repetitive tasks instead of employing low-cost foreign labor could help to make U.S. manufacturers more competitive, and keep their production operation in the United States.
Conventional robots take up significant time and resources for a manufacturer. They are expensive and often need to be cordoned off to keep human workers safe. In addition, conventional robots often take a full day to be programmed for a specific task. They are not overly adaptable.
The new robot, Baxter, can perform many simple tasks with minimal programming (around 45 minutes) by front-line employees instead of engineers. Almost anyone can be trained how to program the robot and if the Baxter completes one task it can be shown how to do another rather quickly. And at $22,000, the robot is very affordable. A video highlighting this adaptable robot is below.
The significance is that Baxter can perform simple and menial tasks that would often be performed by low wage labor, often in other countries. Robots, like Baxter, could help to erase the advantage that foreign countries have in performing simple, repetitive tasks, therefore allowing industries to manufacture their products competitively in the U.S.
Before Baxter, it was easier and cheaper to use human labor than make automation more flexible. Now small manufacturers will be able to increase efficiency and productivity, making them more competitive in the global marketplace. This can help to drive job creation and improve the economy. So while many have believed that robots would be the end of American manufacturing, they just may be the savior.
- Humanoid Robot to Revolutionize U.S. Manufacturing (theepochtimes.com)
- Will Baxter be the Model T of the robotics industry? (nextbigfuture.com)
- Rethink Robotics Unveils Baxter : The Humanoid Robot That Can Think And Work Like You (thetechnologycafe.com)
- Rethink Robotics unveils ‘human-like’ robot for U.S. manufacturers (bizjournals.com)
- Rethink robotics reveals its revolutionary Baxter Manufacturing Robot (nextbigfuture.com)
- Meet Baxter: A Robot With Common Sense [VIDEO] (mashable.com)
- Part 1: Future Of Robotics: Manufacturing Gets A Makeover With Baxter (forbes.com)