Beyond Dirty, Dull and Dangerous

Once I worked for a magazine about what was then a nearly new industrial technology: Robotics Today. It was a magazine about equipment from the likes of Unimate and Prab, Cincinnati Milacron and GMFanuc. Even though we looked at all industries, automotive led the way in the deployment of robots, so I saw more than my share of spot-welding with the requisite cascades of sparks. One of my favorite memories from that time was being at what is now the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant with a group of non-technical/industrial reporters who were absolutely goggle-eyed at the giant Milacron T3 robots: Before these reporters could be corralled by the people leading the tour, they ran up to where the arms were wielding the massive C-shaped weld guns, nearly becoming a statistic in the process.

Back then the proponents of robotics technology said that the ideal application for the units was for “dirty, dull and dangerous jobs.” Which makes complete sense. And is one of the reasons why spot welding has become an application where robots are now dominant. It is hard, unrelenting work that, even with the slightest bit of inattention born of boredom, can lead to some untoward consequences. What’s more, if you think about it, spot welding is something that is readily programmable in as much as the parts to be welded are fixtured in place, so it is known where they are, and it is primarily a matter of creating a program of moving from A to B then closing the tool, dwell, open, move from B to C, etc.

There would probably have been greater penetration of robots today were it not that in the early days of robotics it seemed that many companies were interested in getting the devices to do the “hard” jobs, jobs that didn’t lend themselves to being readily defined, described and programmed. Consequently, there were the stories—and some were just that, stories—about robots smashing windshields, painting each other and generally behaving badly. Meanwhile, over in the welding department, things were going smoothly.

What is not going smoothly for robotic technology right now is their effect on employment. For example, there is a recent National Bureau of Economic Research study, “Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets,” by Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo. The former is an economics professor at MIT and the latter is one at Boston University. While a considerable amount of their paper consists of equations that I am not going to pretend to understand, I credit the authors with some great descriptions, such as: “industrial robots are fully autonomous machines that do not need a human operator and that can be programmed to perform several manual tasks such as welding, painting, assembling, handling materials or packaging. Textile looms, elevators, cranes, transportation bands or coffee makers are not industrial robots as they have a unique purpose, cannot be reprogrammed to perform other tasks, and/or require a human operator.” A Keurig is a Keurig is a Keurig.

The authors note that the auto industry, by far, uses robots more than any other industry (the electronics industry is 20 points behind, at 19 percent). It is somewhat easy to understand how painting followed spot welding as an application. And material handling, which is not always as deterministic, has really come on thanks, in part, to improvements in vision technology.

But here’s the not-entirely-surprising point: “the employment effects of robots are most pronounced in manufacturing, and in particular, in industries most exposed to robots; in routine manual, blue-collar, assembly and related occupations; and for workers with less than a college education.” And those “employment effects” are “unemployment effects.” Yes, the economists show that robots displace workers. They go on to write, “Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, we do not find positive and offsetting employment gains in any occupation or education groups.” Presumably meaning that the number of people who are no longer working the line is greater than the number of people who get jobs programming or fixing robots.

It is said that the word sabotage comes from the actions of some early 19th-century European workers who threw their sabots, or clogs, into machinery to stop production. Remember that it used to be largely about making things by hand before the Industrial Revolution was thoroughly in place. But with time, there was mechanization, which was supplemented by automation. There is no going back.

If there is an answer to this, it is education and training. This is not to say or imagine that all the workers who have been replaced by robots are going to go to their local community colleges and get retrained to do something else. But we should make sure that young people don’t have an expectation that they’re going to do things that are dirty, dull or dangerous, that they get the skills that will allow them to do something else.