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December 12, 2017
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Industrial robots: Friend or foe?

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Instead of eliminating jobs, robots create them, according to a white paper from the Association for Advancing Automation.

As industrial robots become more common in manufacturing plants and warehouses, concerns that robots will "steal" humans' jobs are growing. A 2013 study from Oxford University appeared to confirm such fears when it found that nearly half of all jobs in the United States were susceptible to computerization, and that jobs in warehousing, transportation, and manufacturing were at particularly high risk of being eliminated.

But a new white paper from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), "Robots Fuel the Next Wave of U.S. Productivity and Job Growth," is hoping to combat the bad press that robots have been receiving, arguing that they actually help to increase employment. A3, the umbrella group for Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA—Advancing Vision + Imaging, and Motion Control & Motors Association (MCMA), promotes automation technologies and practices.

Article Figures
[Figure 1] U.S. robot shipments vs. U.S. confirm employment (1996-2014)
[Figure 1] U.S. robot shipments vs. U.S. confirm employment (1996-2014) Enlarge this image

The authors of the A3 report looked at data on nonfarm employment in the United States from 1996 through 2014. They found that as robot shipments in the United States increased, employment levels did, too. (See Figure 1.) The study also found that robots are helping to reshape and revitalize U.S. manufacturing by making U.S. manufacturing more cost-competitive, handling repetitive and dangerous tasks, and filling the labor gap as the U.S. shifts to a service economy and employers have difficulty filling manufacturing and technical jobs.

A previous study by the International Federation of Robotics produced similar results, said A3 President Jeff Burnstein in an interview. Researchers in that study looked at data in a number of countries where robots were being used, such as Brazil, Germany, South Korea, and Japan. They noticed that when the use of robots increased, jobs increased as well, he said. "But the study didn't get much attention in the world, even after it was updated with consistent data," he said. "What was getting a lot of attention were the studies, articles, and commentators who were saying that robots are a threat to jobs."

A3's report does not deny that robots eliminate some jobs. But it points out that the jobs being eliminating often are those that humans do not want to perform because they are dull, dangerous, and/or dirty. Moreover, the report asserts, at the same time they are eliminating these jobs, robots are also allowing companies to create new, higher-value ones. Burnstein said that this has been the case throughout the history of automation.

"Twenty years ago, was there a job called an app developer or social media expert, or search engine optimization specialist?" he said. "Those studies that say robots are killing jobs have no way of knowing what the jobs of the future are going to be. Frankly, neither do we. All we know is that throughout history we have always found new jobs that take advantage of new automation."

In fact, the main problem many of the automation companies that are members of A3 face, Burnstein said, is finding people with the skills they need to build, run, and maintain the machines, including robots. Fortunately, people can gain many of these skills through programs at community colleges and technical schools, he added.

According to Burnstein, the very word "robot" can generate fear, particularly in the United States. "There's this feeling that robots are stealing or killing jobs," he said. "But the truth is, the robot is a tool that is programmed by a human being. It has no intentionality. It doesn't know good or bad. And we have the possibility of taking advantage of the advances in robots and artificial intelligence to benefit society. ... We shouldn't fear these things, we should embrace them."

"Robots Fuel the Next Wave of U.S. Productivity and Job Growth" can be downloaded at www.a3automate.org/a3-white-paper/.

Susan Lacefield is Senior Editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly.

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