At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.
At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year. And they don’t have trade unions.
All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.
This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution, a striking counterpoint to Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ thousands of low-skilled workers.
“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line here.
Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. For instance, Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, plans to install more than a million robots to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” he reportedly said.
The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate.
“At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” asked Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a consumer electronics manufacturer. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”
Counters Bran Ferren, a veteran roboticist and industrial product designer: “You have to have people around anyway. And people are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in or slip the hose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do.”
Rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide array of manual jobs within the abilities of robots. Robot manufacturers in the US say that in many applications, robots are already more cost-effective than humans. And, they point out, their industry itself creates jobs. A report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics last year found that 150,000 people are at present employed by robotics manufacturers worldwide in engineering and assembly jobs.
That may be glossing over the fact that they have rendered many more people than that without a job. And that is the rub.
The workers are the species under the greatest threat from this new automated workforce. And when they unite to fight the threat, what it does to industry, is anybody's guess.