When robots come through the door, jobs, they say, go out the window. And it’s true: the industrial robots that today have become a mainstay of the plastics industry - from zipzapping pick-and-place sprue pickers to the big, six-axis robots going through their programmed routines in fully automated production cells – tend to outnumber workers on most shop floors, confirming doomsayers’ worst fears.
Never mind that robotisation has brought more safety to the shop floor, increased productivity and created new jobs for the workers displaced by those same robots. The idea that robots take jobs away from humans is hard to dispel.
But whose jobs, it might be asked, are they stealing? Almost everywhere, the single biggest problem in the industry is the shortage of labour. In Europe, demographic factors will continue to impact the supply of labour into the foreseeable future. Increasing automation is inevitable to make up the deficit. Some researchers have calculated that the new jobs created as a consequence of technology will compensate for jobs lost to robots; others say the demographic effect will far outweigh the automation effect. Most agree that automation will not increase unemployment.
Moreover, with robots increasingly being pressed into service, a new breed is emerging. Sensor-studded collaborative robots – or cobots – built to work safely alongside human workers are taking their place in assembly lines, performing quality inspections and generally taking over the tedious, repetitious tasks that cause humans mental or physical strain, leaving humans time for tasks requiring cognitive skills.
It’s been said that theoretically, about half the activities people are paid to do globally could be automated. Cobots are humancentric: specifically designed to help people do their jobs, not displace them altogether; collaborating in a way that optimally combines the strengths of humans and the strengths of robotics. We look at how in this issue.
“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated,” Elon Musk once tweeted.
Exactly. Robots carry out tasks. But it’s people who have the jobs.