Manufacturers say robots and automation, far from hurting workers, can save American jobs in the face of global competition
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NEW TROY, Mich., and DES PLAINES, Ill.—The new employees at Vickers Engineering don’t sleep. They drill, grind, and move iron parts incessantly, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Yet none complain of being tired.
They are robots.
Human employee Sam Siriano, 49, used to wake up in the middle of the night with sore arms from a job working manual lathes and mills. Now he babysits a yellow, robotic arm—bolted to the floor and about 6 feet tall at its elbow—that feeds automotive parts into three machines. “What’s ironic about it is I was always reluctant to deal with computers, and now I deal with four of them in unison,” he jokes.
The robot swivels at six different joints. With movements sometimes slow and fluid, sometimes quick and jerky, it picks up an iron casting—a hand-sized part made for a major automaker and shaped something like the letter “D.” The robot swings and places the casting into one of two automated mills, which drills precise holes in the part. Once the mill is finished, the robot transfers the casting to a third machine that installs bushings, then drops it onto a conveyor for human inspection.
Siriano insists no person could outrace this robot: “This is definitely the future. … It’s the only way we’re going to compete with other countries.”
The robots at Vickers, a precision metal machining company in New Troy, Mich., are part of a surge in automated manufacturing. North American companies bought a record 22,598 robots last year, worth $1.48 billion, according to the Robotic Industries Association. These robots and automated machines can cut parts, move boxes, and package goods more efficiently than the humans they’re replacing.
Some people wonder whether machines have become a little too helpful. Businesses have discovered it’s often cheaper in the long run to buy a robot than to pay a human to do a single, repetitive task. With robots going to work while U.S. unemployment remains high, some economists argue robots are the ultimate job killers. But business owners and workers who use automated machines say they’ll actually be job makers, by keeping U.S. companies competitive on the global playing field.
Vickers Engineering president Matt Tyler is one of the optimists. His company bought its first robot in 2006 and has added five others since then. He plans to buy 12 more in two years. Tyler says the robots have made his company cost-effective against foreign competitors: “We can do things faster, we can do things more consistently, we can do things with better quality when you take human error out of product flow.”
Walking through his southwest Michigan plant, where the atmosphere smells slightly greasy and echoes with a cacophony of drilling, zipping, and bursts of air, Tyler proudly showed a robotic arm that makes 25,000 automotive parts each week—small iron castings with two holes tapped in the center: “A human couldn’t keep up with what this robot does. It picks up four parts at a time and it’s constantly moving.”
Robots aren’t just doing millwork. At the Albanese Confectionary Group’s candy factory in Merrillville, Ind., gray robotic arms pluck bags of Gummi Bears from a conveyor and drop them into cardboard boxes. Another robot stacks boxes of candy neatly on pallets. At a Dillard’s distribution center in Maumelle, Ark., 167 orange rovers scoot along the floor, retrieving portable shelves of merchandise by wireless command. At the University of Chicago’s new library, five motorized cranes in an underground vault retrieve books by patron request, navigating towering steel racks and pulling out bins that hold about 100 books apiece.
The word robot conjures an image of a machine with human characteristics (the ability to talk or grasp objects, for instance). But automation more broadly—any computer or mechanism that can take over a human task—is penetrating more and more of the workplace. Two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, argue in their book Race Against the Machine that computer and robotic innovation is upsetting the job market. They say automation has contributed to the jobless recovery—even eliminating some white-collar jobs, as secretaries and tax accountants are replaced by software.
In January, the Associated Press published a gloomy report claiming millions of middle-class jobs were being “obliterated by technology.” But manufacturers using automation say that view is too pessimistic. Jobs are available, they say, and simply require some advanced training.
Inside Erik Iverson’s workshop in Des Plaines, Ill., a cluster of machines—some the size of phone booths—cut, grind, drill, and ream metal parts. The room is filled with whirring, buzzing, and a subtle fog. Peering through the clear plastic windows on these machines, you can watch shavings peel off of slender steel shafts and aluminum rings like long curly fries, and see jets of cooling oil squirt from flexible tubes.
The machines are making components for a sensitive measuring device Iverson’s company, Chicago Dial Indicator, designs and manufactures. Twenty machines are a modern breed known as CNC (“computer numerical control”) machines and are automated: After programming them to perform precise, repetitive tasks, Iverson says he can turn off the lights and lock up his shop at night leaving many of them running.
He paid $180,000 last summer for one particular machine that runs unattended seven hours a night, shaping brass casings: “When I come in, in the morning, I’ve got 192 parts done.” Because of automation, Iverson can keep up production without adding a night shift of workers, which would increase his labor costs.
Grasp an oily office door handle, brave a small, snarling (though friendly) Boston terrier, and Iverson will sit at his desk beneath a black-and-white photo of his grandfather—Chicago Dial Indicator has been family-owned since 1932—and explain why automation is essential, not harmful, to jobs.
“If you’re out of business, what good are you?” he asks. Iverson’s company has competitors in the United States, Switzerland, Germany, China, and Japan. Automation has enabled him to produce more parts at a lower cost: In 10 years he hasn’t raised his prices more than 10 percent, although the cost of raw materials has increased dramatically. As long as he can stay competitive, he argues, he’ll be able to keep employing his 25 or so workers.
Iverson bought the $180,000 machine from his brother Terry, who is part owner of the company. Terry is president of a business of his own, Iverson & Company, also in Des Plaines, which sells the modern CNC lathes and mills manufacturers rely on to create precision parts.
Terry Iverson says manufacturing’s problem is not automation, but a lack of skilled labor: “For 33 years now I’ve knocked on doors and dealt with customers, and everywhere I go, they’re like, ‘Terry, I can’t find enough skilled people. Do you know where a good machinist is? Do you know where a good CNC programmer is?’”
A 2011 report by the Manufacturing Institute found that up to 600,000 manufacturing jobs were unfilled, with companies complaining they couldn’t find enough skilled workers to hire. That was in spite of a 9 percent unemployment rate at the time.
Terry Iverson says automation isn’t eliminating all job openings, it’s just increasing the skill set employers are looking for. Instead of hiring a worker to load parts, a company might need someone to program the CNC machines. Or repair them when they break down. That may mean a worker has to go back to school to learn additional skills.
When Erik Iverson needed a skilled worker last year, he called a local technical school and asked to interview a graduate. He found and hired David Kartom, an Iranian immigrant who left his job exchanging Canadian currency, transferring car titles, and cashing checks to spend six months learning programming language for CNC lathes and mills. “I was tired of working in a cage,” Kartom explained to me.
Now 32-year-old Kartom, wearing a gold chain beneath a blue work shirt, writes arcane code. A single, short line looks like this:
Each letter and number instructs the CNC machine’s automated tools to move up, down, left, right, or perform a function like grinding or cutting. Programmers like Kartom read blueprints for a part, then translate the dimensions to code. Shaping a single aluminum part may take five printed pages of code, Kartom said.
Not all the jobs in Erik Iverson’s shop require advanced skills. Some of his workers don’t speak English, but can easily load a machine and push a button.
Erik says those low-skill manufacturing jobs are slowly disappearing: “If you do not continually learn, whether formally or informally, the times will pass you by and you won’t be efficient at your job. Or you won’t have a job.” Erik is paying one employee to attend night school to learn CNC programming.
U.s. manufacturing faces a chronic problem: As baby boomers retire from manufacturing careers, few young people seem eager to replace them. Terry Iverson says many students, prompted by parents and teachers, view manufacturing with a 50-year-old stereotype of being “dark and dirty and dangerous.”
Terry has made it his mission to dispel that stereotype. He sits on two educational advisory boards that promote manufacturing technology and regularly visits schools to assure students of the high-tech job opportunities available in manufacturing. He fears too many jobs are going overseas: “In order for this country to be great, we have to manufacture.”
The U.S. Department of Labor agrees. Last year in Illinois the agency invested $12.9 million to expand advanced manufacturing training to about 20 community colleges. The grant money will fund a statewide job placement program and even promote manufacturing among elementary-school youngsters using a mobile lab.
Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, says robots help prevent manufacturing jobs from going overseas to countries like China or India, where labor is cheap. By adopting automation, companies lower production costs enough to manufacture on U.S. soil and employ American workers.
“It’s a question of, are we going to create jobs in Asia or are we going to create them in the U.S.?” adds Henrik Christensen, a robotics researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
When manufacturing jobs stay in the United States, there is a ripple effect on local businesses. Tyler of Vickers Engineering noted his company buys many raw materials locally, from companies in Indiana and Michigan. If he had moved his plant to another country, he’d likely be buying those materials there.
“We’ve never laid a single person off, ever, due to automation improvements,” says Tyler. Vickers currently employs about 175 workers in three shifts, and expects to grow to 225 in three years: “We expect our revenues to potentially double by then. … And that’s primarily due to automation.”
Vickers hosts internships with students from two local universities, Notre Dame and Kettering. The company hopes to draw younger workers into the field—such as 27-year-old Robert Rowles, a bearded employee I met at the New Troy plant.
Rowles told me he “bounced around” various labor and manufacturing jobs, including a dirty job making cinder blocks, before settling at Vickers in 2011. He never went to school to learn how to run robots, write code, or fix drill bits in computerized mills, but has learned all three skills on the job. To demonstrate, Rowles held up a small iron part, one of 300 he had finished milling hours earlier—the product of his first attempt at writing CNC code.
He likes the job because of the math involved: “As nerdy as it sounds … I think it is phenomenal.”
Fear that technology will destroy livelihoods has been around for generations. In the early 19th century, Englishmen frustrated with low wages began smashing textile machines, which were sometimes viewed as a threat to traditional jobs. They acquired the name Luddites and become symbols for anyone resisting technological progress.
Technology proponents argue progress doesn’t destroy jobs, but creates new ones: In 1900, 41 percent of Americans were employed in the agricultural industry, yet now only 2 percent are, thanks to tractors and combines. The rest are not unemployed but are working as airline pilots, software programmers, computer technicians, and a host of other jobs that would have been unimaginable before.
Some sectors, such as the automobile and electronics industries, are deeply dependant on robotics technology today. The International Federation of Robotics claims each robot currently in use has created three to five new jobs. The organization estimates 1.6 million robots globally will be operating by 2015.
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