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It's Time to Embrace the Job-Killing Robots

July 17, 2014
The manufacturing renaissance isn't being built on sweat and labor; it's being built on ingenious robots, smart machines and industrial-minded, skilled workers. The job killing robots we all fear might actually be our best tool for job growth.

Let's start with a simple truth: If you are involved in low skill labor, a robot will probably replace you.

There should be no tiptoeing around this. It’s a reality of business today: Unskilled, repetitive labor – whether it happens in a factory, a warehouse, an office or even a newsroom – is on the way out. And so are its workers.

"Automation is driving technological unemployment," writes Colin Lewis, rather bleakly, in his latest post on RobotEnomics. "Jobs are being obliterated."

But, he notes, that's no reason to panic. The sky is not falling, the industry is not crashing and all hope is not lost.

"Our research shows 76 companies that implemented industrial or factory / warehouse robots actually increased the number of employees by 294,000 over the last three years," he writes. And furthermore, he adds, "It is highly probable over a million new jobs will be created in the robotics sectors in the coming five years."

"Automation is driving technological unemployment... Jobs are being obliterated."

—Colin Lewis, RobotEnomics

This little piece of irony is, or at least should be, at the very center of our manufacturing discussions today. It remains one of the most confused and confusing points of our so-called American manufacturing renaissance  and it's time to settle it.

In all our talk about reshoring and rebuilding American manufacturing, there is a faulty assumption that the same jobs lost to the recession and to China will return – that we will be restarting the same factories in the same condition, following the same old practices as before. But that is simply not the case.

Manufacturing in America today requires new methods, new practices and new technologies. Our manufacturing renaissance isn't being built with sweat and effort; it's being built with ingenious robots, smart machines and industrial-minded, skilled workers.

If we ignore that change, if we live in fear of the robot uprising or rely too heavily on the practices of the past, the whole renaissance could pass us by.

In order to succeed on that front, manufacturers – everyone from labor to executive leadership – need to embrace the future and all of the job cuts it entails.

Because, as Lewis notes, job-killing robots might actually be the best tool we have for adding jobs.

If all of this is true, then the only question that really matters is what kind of jobs are these new tools actually creating? And also, for whom?

Kevin Ambrose, CEO of warehouse technology provider, Wynright, believes he has an answer.

Embrace the Dark

Automation is Ambrose's business. His company designs and manufacturers the kind of sophisticated automatic warehousing technologies and controls that low skill labors fear the most. With his technology, he can transform a busy, bustling distribution center into a practically lights-out, humanless process.

In 2011, for example, Wynright built the system for Sketcher USA's massive 1.8 million square foot distribution center in Rancho Belago, Calif., equipping it with enough automated gear – storage and retrieval systems, conveyors, pack and hold processes, sorting, tagging, the whole bit – to run its 70,000 SKUs from order to pallet with practically no human intervention.

The system allowed Sketchers to trim its peak production headcount from 1,200 to a slim 500. Off-peak season, that's down to 300 – a 75% reduction from pre-robot levels.

That sounds terrible. Awful, actually. But Ambrose, like most of his peers in the robot and automation industry, argues that this change is nothing to fear. In fact, he says, it’s actually good news for the industry and its workers.

"These highly automated facilities, while they don't take an army to run them anymore, they need a staff of educated and skilled technicians to operate, maintain and support them," he explains. "It creates new, higher paying, critical jobs for a new generation of workers – workers who, quite frankly, wouldn't take those repetitive jobs if they still existed."

Again, that doesn't actually sound like great news to the 900 labors affected at Sketchers. More jobs for degreed engineers doesn't exactly help the day laborer.

"This is the reality of the industry today. If you're afraid of it, you'll get left behind."

—Kevin Ambrose, CEO Wynright

But Ambrose isn't talking about engineers.

"What we don't want is to create an environment where people believe the only way they can survive in the world is to become an engineer," he says. "It's not that at all."

Rather, he insists, what the industry really needs is technicians – workers with basic computer skills and an insider's understanding of the industry.

For an explanation, he points back to the Sketchers project.

In the new facility, the automated systems can handle up to 17,000 pairs of shoes per hour, more than double the amount handled by hand in the old days. And that number is expected to increase by another 25% in the next few years.

So while the labor staff was severely reduced, the technical staff required to keep the whole thing running has increased accordingly. Better yet, the company's new growth and productivity means it can afford to hire them.

But again, Ambrose notes, "they didn't go out and hire a bunch of engineers to run the system. They took people within their workforce that had a certain aptitude and experience in their environment – people who already understand the business and the nuances of distributing shoes."

Facilities like these, he says, aren't running out and hiring people from other industries to keep them running. Rather, they are taking people that have been in that operation who understand what it takes – understand the metrics that matter and the processes that are most effective – and they are giving them the training they need to take charge of it.

"Automation is providing new, younger workers the opportunity to take technical leadership roles in their companies," he says. "It's creating greater value contribution roles, which have higher pay, and more challenges associated with them."

And that is an opportunity that is open to any of the workers facing the robot revolution.

Embracing the robots, embracing the demands of 21st century manufacturing the skills it requires, can be the secret to success.

"This is the reality of the industry today," argues Ambrose. "If you're afraid of it, you'll get left behind."

Wynright Skechers web 11-14-12 from Wynright Corporation on Vimeo.

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