Thursday, January 20, 2011

Robotic Manufacturing a Blessing... or a Curse?

As we see in this video robotic manufacturing today is something right out of Star Trek. And it's given us so many of the amazing technological toys and tools we have came to use and enjoy everyday that it's hard to find fault with it.

But this video also shows the amazing amount of manufacturing work that never sees the touch of a human hand today. And while that's good for the cost and efficiency of the products being made it's a disaster for the people who now have no job due to automation.

So how do we both keep our technology and all the wonderful things it provides for us and still find enough employment to keep everyone working. That is a question that will trouble us for some time to come and will only become worse as we see more and more jobs taken over by the very technology we have came to love.

As with so may of our questions today the answers will not come easy and while we have came to love our technology we will also come to hate it's encroachment into our lives and lively hood.

So take a few minutes and enjoy the video. That's still something that a machine can't do for you, at least not yet!

Amplify’d from

Two of the major themes in the public eye here in the US are the outsourcing of jobs abroad and the current economic crisis. We’ve recently explored how workers in the US are (rightfully?) concerned about losing jobs to robots as well as to overseas factories. I think the video above shows that these are, in fact, competing interests. Look at the work done in Asia: is there any doubt that many of the steps humans are performing could be automated? The plugging in of cards for testing, the assembling of components, the placement of products in packaging – I could imagine a robot doing any of these tasks. Which probably means that, in a few years or so, they will. Asia, with its relatively cheap labor markets, is where we have exported manufacturing jobs. Yet if these processes become as automated as the wafer factories in Utah would labor costs still be the deciding factor?

When you watch the following video, I want you to compare the creation of the silicon wafers in Utah to the rest of the assembly and testing performed in Asia. The wafer building at Micron Technology (which owns Lexar, by the way) displays a minimum of human presence, even if it has “thousands of workers.” The factories in Asia are very different. Starting around 3:28, the process goes from being almost purely robotic to relying more on human-machine cooperation.
Every product in your home tells a story. Listening to the memory card in your camera or computer will give you a sneak peak into the international world of automated manufacturing. Lexar Media is one of the largest producers of memory chips (SD cards, memory sticks, keydrives, CompactFlash, etc), and they recently released a promo that shows the start to finish process for their goods. What does this video demonstrate? Total automation domination. From the creation of the silicon wafer in Utah to the packaging of the final product in Asia , machines are center stage. Watching these slick industrial robots do their thing is something else. You have to check out the video below and see what I mean. Considering how crucial automation is in modern production, maybe the big surprise at this point isn’t the robotic dominance but that Lexar still employs so many humans.

As robots get cheaper and better you have to pay your workers less and less to compete. At some point, machines win. And not just in manufacturing – automation is creeping in at all levels of the economy, including research science. In the years ahead, human labor is likely to be removed from any repetitive task. Manufacturing, tech services, legal research and other fields could try to make their way to even cheaper labor markets, but I think that robots will ultimately make such geographic concerns a thing of the past. Watching Lexar’s tour through their creation process leaves little doubt that the domination of automation is well underway. It’s only going to get more robotic from here.


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