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.
By JOHN MARKOFF Published: August 18, 2012
DRACHTEN, the Netherlands — At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.
At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.
One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.
All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.
This is the future. 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.
“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.
Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”
The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”
In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues.
“At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” asked Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics products that is based in Silicon Valley and is increasingly automating assembly work. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”
But Bran Ferren, a veteran roboticist and industrial product designer at Applied Minds in Glendale, Calif., argues that there are still steep obstacles that have made the dream of the universal assembly robot elusive. “I had an early naïveté about universal robots that could just do anything,” he said. “You have to have people around anyway. And people are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in or slip the hose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do.”
Beyond the technical challenges lies resistance from unionized workers and communities worried about jobs. The ascension of robots may mean fewer jobs are created in this country, even though rising labor and transportation costs in Asia and fears of intellectual property theft are now bringing some work back to the West.
Take the cavernous solar-panel factory run by Flextronics in Milpitas, south of San Francisco. A large banner proudly proclaims “Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California!” (Right now China makes a large share of the solar panels used in this country and is automating its own industry.)
Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material, threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame for each panel.
Cilvēku vairākums dzīvo, galvas nepacēluši un nezinot. Un kam gan? Šīs pārmaiņas mūs neskars. Tās skars mūsu pēcnācējus. Daudzkārt palielināts darba ražīgums sagatavos planētas iedzīvotāju skaita samazināšanas ekonomisko bāzi. Varbūt, ka šādā veidā cilvēcei izdosies saglabāt šīs civilizācijas sasniegumus (jauna un pilnīgāka intelekta izveidošanu stabilākā un drošākā vidē) un sabalansēt atlikušos planētas resursus, vides piesārņošanu un draudošo klimata maiņu.
Pa ceļam gan vēl dažus uzdevumus būs jāatrisina. Kā lai samazina planētas iedzīvotāju skaitu, neiznīcinot visu līdz šim sasniegto, tā, lai to varētu atstāt tai nākotnei, kuras dalībnieki un veidotāji mēs šodien (to nezinot un neapzinoties) esam?