Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Robots and the US Worker: A Potential Alliance?

A worker operates a robotic arm at Safran. Photo: Cyril Abad
Watching the news or reading online, it could be easy to conclude the average American is fighting tooth and nail against an emerging trend of automation in the workplace. It is true that American employment has been effected in some way by automation. Many Americans have seen evidence of job losses as a result of robot replacements. That said, most of the country do not believe they will be replaced by one, themselves. This could be good, old-fashioned cognitive dissonance, but it could also signal  the question of whether the future of labor belongs to the worker or the robot is not nearly as binary as it is framed in the clumsy narrative of mainstream media. In fact, more and more, it could very well be argued that automation could save American employment.

To be sure, the world of robotics is currently integrating itself into the US industry at skyrocketing rates. 2017 was a banner year, as over $1.47 billion worth of robotics were ordered throughout North America in the first nine months, alone. Traditional industries from automobiles to food and service saw an increase in robotic parts, as well as non-automated parts. This upsurge represents the greatest number yet of automated integration. By some rationale, it would then follow job numbers would have an inverse trend. On the contrary, employment for manufacturing has been steadily increasing from 2010 to at least 2016. Could this be in spite of robotics? It is true that correlation does not equal causation, but experts within the industry see ample evidence to support the idea that automation is creating opportunities for niche hires, or even new job titles, altogether.

One such example is the field of Application Specific Machine Vision (ASMV).  While Machine Vision is defined as pliable in application, ASMV are turnkey systems that find ways to implement specific roles across multiple industries: experience-heavy in the small picture, interchangeable in the big one. ASMV as a market is expected to increase this year, and it represents an intersection of old-industry expertise and new standardization. Because it is a technology that uses specifications for tools such as sensors and lasers, it will demand new skills for maintenance and development. Especially in the context of development, companies would do well to cultivate an innovative working force. ASMV is intended to be constantly added to in hard and software, and workers who inherently understand a company's unique installation from the time it is implemented on will be of high value.  Therefore, whole new wings of IT departments could certainly result in a company's large-scale adoption of ASMV. Additionally, managing ASMV on a daily basis will require applicable skills for even the basic floor worker.

None of this is to say the transition into the new model of workforce will be easy, nor to diminish the pain of mass amounts of jobs designed for a 20th century world suddenly finding itself redundant or unnecessary for new demands. Automated factories may very well be a difficult realm for the working class to navigate. The signs are there, however, that new workers will be needed to train and learn to operate within them. While technology is more and more impressive and encompassing, it still yields to the same patterns of the Industrial Age; when invention solves a demand, it can open up several more.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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