March 8, 2013

The robot revolution in a changing workplace

Does using robots lead to more jobs or job losses? The numbers support either thesis.

By CECILIA KANG The Washington Post

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Scott Eckert, chief executive of the Boston-based Rethink Robotics, defends his industry against critics who decry robots as jobs-killers. Without his robots, Eckert says, many small businesses might look overseas for manufacturing.

Photos for The Washington Post by Jessica Rinaldi

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Rethink Robotics designed the Baxter robot to work alongside real people. Its cartoon face changes expressions to warn people what it is doing.

But the International Federation of Robotics said in a study last month that paid employment has increased in countries that are the biggest users of industrial robots. For all the jobs lost in manufacturing, others have to be created in distribution and services, the report says.

Marlin Steel, a company in Baltimore, said it has increased its staff from 18 to 34 people in the past seven years because it began using robots to produce wire baskets that it sells to carmakers and pharmaceutical firms. The new positions are administrators and sales and marketing staffers, as well as engineers at its Baltimore factory.

"It's a virtuous cycle. We are shipping great quality products fast due to robots, and that in turn means more jobs," said Drew Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel.

But the math on job losses and gains due to new technology is a fuzzy science and highly subjective, other companies say.

Lear, a major car parts maker near Detroit with nearly $15 billion in annual revenue, says it uses robots developed by Danish firm Universal Robotics to help screw together seats and put together electronic dashboards. The tasks require precision in a fast-moving environment.

Humans could do the job best, but Lear officials say they have to use robots for the company to survive.

"We use them to stay competitive and to keep core employment for everyone," said Mel Stephens, a spokesman for Lear. "Does this lead to more jobs or job losses? I think you would be able to find numbers that support either thesis."

Baxter's creator, Rethink Robotics, says there will always be a need for humans in manufacturing.

The company designed Baxter to work alongside people. It's cartoon face changes expressions to warn people what it is doing. When it is interrupted, a confused look comes across its face. It appears sad when it is shut down.

By using cameras no more sophisticated than those in smartphones and with technology used in video game consoles such as the Xbox Kinect, it can sense when people are nearby or in its way. And it can be reprogrammed easily by guiding its arms to new tasks and pushing a few buttons.

Rethink counts founder Jeff Bezos as an investor.

These days, Rethink chief executive Scott Eckert spends his time defending his industry against critics who decry robots as job-killers. He said the firm is targeting 300,000 small businesses that can afford his product.

Without his robots, Eckert said, many of these companies might simply look overseas for manufacturing. But now it has become cheaper to buy a factory robot, he said.

"We want to bring U.S. manufacturing back and at least slow or stop the trend of people leaving the field," he said.


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