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The great equalizer: How robotics frees manufacturers from consolidating in low-wage nations
April 15, 2013

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-worker-climbing-upwards-ladder-image19289039These days it is hard to read an article about the future of robots that does not include a reference to jobs. As a pure roboticist I object to the constant connection between the two, but as a concerned citizen I think it is a very worthwhile discussion.  Since the year 2000, the US has lost more than 6 million manufacturing jobs — that is more than 1/3 of all direct manufacturing jobs in the US and the fastest drop in a single decade on record.

This post is part of Robohub’s Jobs Focus. 

During that same period the US trade deficit with China grew from $100 billion to over $270 billion as many companies chose to outsource their manufacturing to low wage nations such as China where labor costs were 1/10 that of the US. In some cases, entire industries such as mobile phones, consumer electronics, and computers were outsourced to contract manufacturers and moved offshore, creating as many as 25 jobs in these low wage countries for every job created in the US.

I can speak to this firsthand. In the late 1990s, the largest market of my company at the time, Adept Technology, was automating mobile phone and computer factories in the US. As the pace of innovation accelerated and models proliferated, our robots did not have the flexibility or intelligence to keep up with the rate of change. Additionally, these manufacturers were facing increasing pressure from low cost competition that left them with no choice but to look to low cost labor markets to produce their products, first in Mexico then Brazil then China. At the time there were less than 350 million mobile phones produced in the world with the majority produced in the US and Europe. Today there are over one billion mobile phones produced a year and not a single one is produced in the US even though the US market consumes over 200 million units.

Wages in countries such as China have been increasing at a rate close to 20% per year. Add to this increasing transportation costs and the negative impact of a supply chain that stretches around the world, and more and more companies are rethinking their manufacturing strategies.

The robots of today are smarter, more agile and less expensive than their ancestors of the 1990s. They integrate sophisticated sensing technology that allows them to adjust to changes in their environment and in the products that they produce. Some are even leaving their traditional isolated cages to work in tandem with people, making the combination even more productive. All of this makes the new generation of robots far more adaptable to today’s manufacturing world, and a much better technical fit than they were a decade ago.

At the same time wages in countries such as China have been increasing at a rate close to 20% per year. Add to this increasing transportation costs and the negative impact of a supply chain that stretches around the world, and more and more companies are rethinking their manufacturing strategies.

Back in the US, a new manufacturing equation is emerging, called Smart Manufacturing. Smart Manufacturing is the production of traditional products using advanced technologies such as computers, robots, lasers and 3D printers. Using these tools dramatically improves productivity and lowers costs as compared to traditional manufacturing approaches, while maintaining flexibility and improving time to market. Smart Manufacturing is making US goods competitive with products produced anywhere in the world, even in the lowest wage nations, and the result is that the decades old trend of offshoring is being replaced with a new trend, re-shoring.

Re-shoring is not a concept founded in patriotism or built on motherhood and apple pie ideals. Re-shoring is a powerful business tool founded on solid economics. For centuries manufacturers have employed a strategy of chasing cheap labor around the world, moving from one low wage nation to the next as costs rose in the developed world. While this has resulted in lowering direct product costs, it has also added significant expense related to managing a supply chain that extends around the world. It has also slowed the rate at which new products can be ramped with product development and production separated by thousands of miles and several time zones.

Automation becomes the great equalizer, allowing products to be produced anywhere in the world for the same cost, and freeing manufacturers from consolidating manufacturing in low wage nations.

Smart Manufacturing has the potential to bring an end to manufacturer’s centuries old dependence on low cost labor, and open up a new strategy: developing and producing goods in the markets where they are consumed. Localizing and integrating marketing, product development, manufacturing and distribution is the ultimate operational model. It allows for more targeted products while eliminating the costs of managing global supply chains and disjointed product introduction processes. Automation becomes the great equalizer, allowing products to be produced anywhere in the world for the same cost, and freeing manufacturers from consolidating manufacturing in low wage nations.

Smart Manufacturing and robotics have one other benefit, the creation of high value, high wage jobs. In a 2009 study commissioned by Intel, ECONorthwest found a strong connection between Smart Manufacturing and the creation of jobs. At Intel’s highly automated factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, they employ close to 16,000 people. ECONorthwest found that for every 10 jobs created within the factory there were an additional 31 jobs created in the local community to support the factory. These indirect jobs were anywhere from 40-60% above the statewide average income for Oregon.

Other studies have pegged the jobs multiplier of Smart Manufacturing at between 2 and 10 times the number of direct manufacturing jobs. In a separate study commissioned by the International Federation of Robots (IFR), Metra Martech estimated that the robot industry has created between 8 million and 10 million jobs throughout its history, and forecast that over the next decade the industry will create between 2 and 3.5 million direct jobs and almost as many indirect jobs. The study went on to show a tight correlation between the increased use of robots and a reduction in the overall unemployment rate. They also point out that emerging economies are amongst the fastest growing users of robots. According to the IFR, Korea and China are now the top consuming nations of industrial robots, surpassing the US, Germany and Japan. China’s ascent to the top has been nothing short of amazing.

With all manufacturers having access to the same set of tools, the winners — and ultimately the jobs — will go to those producers who can most effectively and creatively leverage these tools to their competitive advantage.

From 2008 to 2012, China’s use of robots has increased over 300% in a nation where average manufacturing wages still remain between $1.00 and $1.50 per hour.

Looking to the future, the manufacturing world is becoming flat. Robotics and other advanced technologies are leveling the playing field and eliminating the advantage and influence that low cost labor has had on manufacturing. With all manufacturers having access to the same set of tools, the winners — and ultimately the jobs — will go to those producers who can most effectively and creatively leverage these tools to their competitive advantage. In the end robots are about jobs.

See all the posts in Robohub’s Jobs Focus.

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