Sunday, August 19, 2012

Skilled Work, Without the Worker

Link

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.

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.

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.

[..] Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics products that is based in Silicon Valley and is increasingly automating assembly work [says] “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”

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!” [..] 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.