When robotics legend Rodney Brooks unveiled a human-like robot in 2012, claims followed that it was a bold step in the direction of replacing people with machines.
True, the robot—named Baxter—would exist to take manufacturing duties from humans. But Brooks contended from the start that the robot wouldn’t lead to lost jobs. On the contrary, he said: Baxter could be the salvation of many manufacturers and their workers, who would otherwise succumb to Chinese competition.
Plenty have still doubted.
But a year-and-a-half after Baxter’s commercial debut, manufacturers who’ve added the bot into the mix haven’t laid anyone off as a result, according to Brooks’ company, Rethink Robotics of Boston. The manufacturers are more competitive with Asia, too, and doing a larger amount of work in the US than they otherwise could, Rethink chief executive Scott Eckert said.
“We’ve always said it would be the other way around” from the dire job predictions, Eckert said. “Now that I’ve got so many customers deploying these robots, I know it’s true.”
It appears to be a similar story at one of Rethink’s main rivals, Universal Robots, a Denmark company with a US headquarters on Long Island. The firm makes a robotic arm that, like Baxter, performs repetitive manufacturing duties previously done by humans. Universal reports an uptick in business and jobs at many of its customers.
Yes, a deluge of new automation technology has made humans less necessary in practically every industry through harnessing software. And yes, the arrival of more-intelligent machines would seem especially bad news for workers in manufacturing—a sector that’s suffered a decades-long slide already in the United States.
But it appears the manufacturing industry may be a special case, in which automation and artificial intelligence can actually protect jobs rather than replace them.
Inevitably, a robot with a human name and facial expressions that’s doing human work will produce a strong reaction from many. As in: Here’s a robot that’s definitely arrived to replace us, fulfill some version of our sci-fi-influenced nightmares, and so forth.
But Brooks—who previously created iRobot’s famous robo-vacuum, Roomba—had good reason to make Baxter resemble a person. One of its key selling points is that humans can easily train the robot and work alongside it, because it doesn’t need a safety cage (the robot’s array of sensors ensures it can’t harm human workers). So, Brooks realized, the entire Baxter scheme depends on making workers feel comfortable around the robot, and making it human-like would help to accomplish that.
Baxter, which sells for $25,000, is so far having the hoped-for effect in terms of making US manufacturers competitive with China, Eckert told me last week. For instance, The Rodon Group of Pennsylvania, a maker of plastic parts, has been able to win more contracts versus its overseas competitors, he said.
“They can quote a lower cost structure because they have Baxter doing part of the work,” Eckert said. “If you lose a couple bids to China, over time, pretty soon you can’t keep your company stable and the whole company disappears, and all the jobs with it. We can reverse that.”
As for the employees whose duties have been automated, they are being put to work elsewhere in the operation, according to Eckert. Manufacturers, you may have heard, are facing a massive talent shortage, due to retirements and a shortfall of younger workers entering the industry. In Massachusetts alone, it’s estimated that 100,000 manufacturing jobs will open up in the coming decade (and many will be tough to fill).
Manufacturers are thus having no trouble finding other work for the employees who are displaced by Baxter, Eckert said. “They’re training those workers up, giving them more skills, and letting the robot do the un-interesting work,” he said.
Larger manufacturers are also using Baxter as part of a “re-shoring” strategy, in which facilities are sited close to where the customers for the manufactured goods are located. “They’re trying to beef up their US manufacturing presence for the US market, and they’re using robots like ours to keep the cost structure competitive—so that internally their US manufacturing has equivalent economics to their offshore manufacturing,” Eckert said.
Rethink isn’t naming the larger customers, but Eckert said the company has shipped “hundreds” of Baxters so far. Along with plastics, industries that have bought the robot so far include automotive and consumer goods.
Universal’s robot arm
In Europe, Universal Robots has pointed to customer cases including this one from Trelleborg Sealing Solutions in Denmark: “Orders have risen so sharply that 50 new employees were needed at the factory in Helsingør, Denmark despite the arrival of the new robot colleagues.”
The firm has also been selling in the US since 2012, and has posted customer testimonials from manufacturers including RSS Manufacturing & Phylrich of California, which touted its ability “stay competitive and bring manufacturing back to the U.S.” in part through the use of the Universal robot arm.
A Universal executive couldn’t be reached for comment, but I spoke with Frank Tobe, who has followed the company closely as author for The Robot Report, a robotics industry news site. “Universal’s experience is that they are augmenting the skill set of workers—they’re not replacing them,” Tobe said. “If you make people more productive, you sell more. If you sell more, you need more people.”
Isn’t it possible that such technologies could eventually find uses that do kill US jobs? Many experts on the tech industry would say yes, judging by a new Pew survey; it found that about half of experts “envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers.”
At the very least, it’s easy to imagine a world where Baxter takes your ticket at the movie theater, makes your latte at Starbucks, and so on.
For now though, Baxter is factory-bound. And in that context at least, Brooks and co. argue that some of our assumptions about robots—particularly those about their impact on jobs—may indeed deserve a rethinking.
Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
Follow Kyle on Twitter