Sunday, October 5, 2014

iRobot: The Impact of Robotics on Human Labor in Manufacturing

One of the articles we read for this week, entitled “The 4 Technology Trends That Could Bring Back U.S. Manufacturing (And Innovation), documented four different ways that the author felt that America could return to not only innovating but also manufacturing their goods. The article mentioned additive manufacturing, the impact of shale gas, continuous manufacturing, and, something I found particularly interesting, robotics in place of human labor.

            According to a study released by MIT, seven of the top 10 “robotic” countries have decreased in manufacturing employment since 2009, and 9 of the 10 saw drastic increases in robots per 1,000 manufacturing workers. All 10 countries saw worsened impacts on manufacturing employment when compared to impact on the robot:worker ratio[1]. 

This trend in robotics in the workforce, when coupled with recent developments in demand for moderately skilled workers, can create a lot of trouble for a large class of American workers today. Harvard economics professor, Lawrence Katz, explains a phenomenon he calls “hollowing out”, which essentially represents that direct decrease in jobs for “middle skill” jobs due to technology while higher skilled and lower skilled jobs remain less targeted [2].  ].  Moreover, a study performed at Oxford University by Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne predicts that a whopping 47% of United States jobs are at risk from automation [2].

After reading all of this information, I feel that there are definite benefits to robotics from a manufacturing perspective. Aside from the obvious perks of having extremely efficient machines handling tasks and minimizing any chance of human error, it even alleviates any company from concerns of laborers being overworked or in poor conditions. That being said, I also feel that there should be a corporate responsibility to ensure that the human work force in the United States is being given ample opportunity to bring innovation to life. Regulations on robot and human proportions in manufacturing plants could help to balance the utility of robotics and offer career opportunities for civilians.

Now that the unemployment rate in the United States has finally started falling again, should there be limitations placed on the robots per amount of workers ratio? Will employers feel the ethical ramifications of phasing out human labor supply or will the appeal of standardizable, efficient, and never tired automated workforces eventually win out?


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