The Robots Are Coming! Better Get Used to It
For those of you reluctant to welcome our new robot overlords, it might be time to reconsider your stance.
Six times in the last month I’ve been struck by the increasing utility of robots performing tasks that a human otherwise would. I can’t imagine the number will be going down, either.
The most recent example was Amazon’s $775 million acquisition of Kiva Systems, a company that automates warehouse operations with robots. “Kiva’s technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack, and stow,” said Dave Clark, vice president of global customer fulfillment at Amazon, in a statement. In other words, robots do a lot of the grunt work to make the warehouse run faster.
Amazon knows a lot about operating at large scale, and robots that might not make sense for a small company are a good match for huge warehouses wired directly to a huge e-commerce operation.
And Amazon isn’t alone. A German industrial power called Still has the same idea as it expands beyond mere forklifts into the loftier realm of warehouse logistics. At the CeBIT trade show, it showed off a prototype of an autonomous forklift.
There were robots aplenty at CeBIT, the second in my list of robot epiphanies. The eye candy was a Fraunhofer Institute demonstration of a robot that would take a photo of a person then sketch a portrait based on the digital photo. But there’s plenty of serious work, too, as evidenced by the 4,000 people a year that come through a robotics training center at the CeBIT fairgrounds.
That training center, the Robotation Academy, was established to convince small businesses that robots are worthy investments for manufacturing, in large measure because of higher consistent quality than what humans offer.
Which brings me to the third situation: Apple, Foxconn, and China.
There’s plenty of room for debate about whether I should worry that my purchase of a third-generation iPad contributes to dismal working conditions at Foxconn among laborers, where much of Apple’s shiny gizmos are assembled by low-cost Chinese labor. But what I see as a clearer issue is that the work is ideally suited to robots—mind-numbingly repetitive and not rewarding except perhaps financially.
Obviously, robots are expensive, inflexible and not the right answer for every manufacturing job. But just look at the trajectory and extrapolate. Ever seen the insides of a chip fab? It’s automated by necessity because the manufacturing requires extreme precision and isolation from people who are constantly shedding dead skin cells and other impurities. Expect automated manufacturing to extend steadily down the supply chain.
Fourth on my list was a view of the gargantuan complex used to manufacture 3,850 Volkswagen cars a day at the company’s Wolfsburg, Germany, headquarters. I’ve seen B-roll of robots welding car parts for years, so robots on car manufacturing lines are nothing new to me intellectually.
Robots look for real-world jobs (photos)
But seeing the the robots firsthand as I walked onto the VW factory floor was another thing altogether. Row upon row of these behemoths whipped stamped-steel car parts around with a frightening grace, servomotors whirring and welding sparks flying. Most notable: I couldn’t even see humans initially until my guide pointed them out in a central quality-control station.
To make its sixth-generation series Golf cars and assorted derivatives, VW has 1,612 robots from Germany’s Kuka and Japan’s Fanuc Robotics toiling away, typically three shifts a day. Another 800 robots, eerily inert, awaited activation as the plant shifts to its seventh-generation Golf line. Unmanned vehicles from the logistics group shuttled inventory around, navigating on their own.