Robots are taking on more responsibility. What does this mean for manufacturing jobs?

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May 12, 2015

By Robert McCutcheon, US Industrial Products Leader

Robots are being released from their cages. After decades of toiling away at heavy (and dirty and dangerous) industrial tasks, robots are taking on more responsibility, becoming more adept, easier to use and, in some cases, less expensive. A new era of collaborative robots is allowing manufacturers to enlist a new generation of “assistants” capable of so much more than repetitive automation – for example, taking on jobs such as assembly, transporting and handlings, picking and packing, product testing and inspection, to name a few.

No surprise, then, that robots are also trundling into America’s factory floors at a quick clip. About one in two US manufacturers is currently using robotics systems, our latest PwC Manufacturing Barometer survey found. Perhaps of greater note, about half of the manufacturers also felt that robots were “important” to their business and profit growth.

Clearly, robotics and other automation systems have lifted manufacturing productivity for decades not only in the US, but also in other economies of robotic high-density, such as Germany and South Korea. And greater productivity translates into greater competitiveness.

But does it follow that productivity and the ability to compete mean a diminished need for human workers? At a time when many economies are still wrestling with high jobless rates, fears and concerns surrounding robots as job-killers persist. This notion of machines displacing humans is, of course, a perennial one.

The verdict may still be out. Interestingly, 77% of manufacturers said they believed robotics will create new job opportunities (e.g., to engineer robots and their operating systems) while 73% said that robots will replace workers and reduce overall workforce. But, if replacing work that is dangerous, repetitive and mind-numbing, who, in the early 21st century, would really oppose that? In many instances, robots relieve humans of dispiriting work, leaving them open for promotion to more engaging work (instead of being let go). Theoretically, for example, every unattractive job that robots may grab from manufacturers could be freed up for a higher-value job for the human being replaced. Indeed, many companies are venturing on this path of talent relocation, not talent dislocation.

This discourse around man and machine is not a new one and will be with us so long as we share our world with the mechanical, the electronic, the artifical. One (very) early thought leader put it this way:

There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates…. This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation. –  Aristotle, Politics, 322 BC.


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