MAN AND MACHINE: A workman monitors a robotic ladle moving molten zinc at ArcelorMittal Steel’s hot dip galvanizing line in Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio.
Associated Press/Photo by Mark Duncan
MAN AND MACHINE: A workman monitors a robotic ladle moving molten zinc at ArcelorMittal Steel’s hot dip galvanizing line in Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio.

Automatic employment

Business | Manufacturers say robots and automation, far from hurting workers, can save American jobs in the face of global competition

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

NEW TROY, Mich., and DES PLAINES, Ill.—The new employees at Vickers Engineering don’t sleep. They drill, grind, and move iron parts incessantly, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Yet none complain of being tired.

They are robots.

Human employee Sam Siriano, 49, used to wake up in the middle of the night with sore arms from a job working manual lathes and mills. Now he babysits a yellow, robotic arm—bolted to the floor and about 6 feet tall at its elbow—that feeds automotive parts into three machines. “What’s ironic about it is I was always reluctant to deal with computers, and now I deal with four of them in unison,” he jokes.

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The robot swivels at six different joints. With movements sometimes slow and fluid, sometimes quick and jerky, it picks up an iron casting—a hand-sized part made for a major automaker and shaped something like the letter “D.” The robot swings and places the casting into one of two automated mills, which drills precise holes in the part. Once the mill is finished, the robot transfers the casting to a third machine that installs bushings, then drops it onto a conveyor for human inspection.

Siriano insists no person could outrace this robot: “This is definitely the future. …  It’s the only way we’re going to compete with other countries.”

The robots at Vickers, a precision metal machining company in New Troy, Mich., are part of a surge in automated manufacturing. North American companies bought a record 22,598 robots last year, worth $1.48 billion, according to the Robotic Industries Association. These robots and automated machines can cut parts, move boxes, and package goods more efficiently than the humans they’re replacing.

Some people wonder whether machines have become a little too helpful. Businesses have discovered it’s often cheaper in the long run to buy a robot than to pay a human to do a single, repetitive task. With robots going to work while U.S. unemployment remains high, some economists argue robots are the ultimate job killers. But business owners and workers who use automated machines say they’ll actually be job makers, by keeping U.S. companies competitive on the global playing field.

Vickers Engineering president Matt Tyler is one of the optimists. His company bought its first robot in 2006 and has added five others since then. He plans to buy 12 more in two years. Tyler says the robots have made his company cost-effective against foreign competitors: “We can do things faster, we can do things more consistently, we can do things with better quality when you take human error out of product flow.”

Walking through his southwest Michigan plant, where the atmosphere smells slightly greasy and echoes with a cacophony of drilling, zipping, and bursts of air, Tyler proudly showed a robotic arm that makes 25,000 automotive parts each week—small iron castings with two holes tapped in the center: “A human couldn’t keep up with what this robot does. It picks up four parts at a time and it’s constantly moving.”

Robots aren’t just doing millwork. At the Albanese Confectionary Group’s candy factory in Merrillville, Ind., gray robotic arms pluck bags of Gummi Bears from a conveyor and drop them into cardboard boxes. Another robot stacks boxes of candy neatly on pallets. At a Dillard’s distribution center in Maumelle, Ark., 167 orange rovers scoot along the floor, retrieving portable shelves of merchandise by wireless command. At the University of Chicago’s new library, five motorized cranes in an underground vault retrieve books by patron request, navigating towering steel racks and pulling out bins that hold about 100 books apiece.

The word robot conjures an image of a machine with human characteristics (the ability to talk or grasp objects, for instance). But automation more broadly—any computer or mechanism that can take over a human task—is penetrating more and more of the workplace. Two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, argue in their book Race Against the Machine that computer and robotic innovation is upsetting the job market. They say automation has contributed to the jobless recovery—even eliminating some white-collar jobs, as secretaries and tax accountants are replaced by software.

In January, the Associated Press published a gloomy report claiming millions of middle-class jobs were being “obliterated by technology.” But manufacturers using automation say that view is too pessimistic. Jobs are available, they say, and simply require some advanced training.

Inside Erik Iverson’s workshop in Des Plaines, Ill., a cluster of machines—some the size of phone booths—cut, grind, drill, and ream metal parts. The room is filled with whirring, buzzing, and a subtle fog. Peering through the clear plastic windows on these machines, you can watch shavings peel off of slender steel shafts and aluminum rings like long curly fries, and see jets of cooling oil squirt from flexible tubes.


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