Automation and Good Jobs

If you search back to 2015, seven years ago, you will find a post that notes the introduction of a new line of tabletop robotic arms, a development that I then anticipated heralded a new era of manufacturing. Previously the auto industry and the electronics industries were the only large-scale users of robotics. This week I saw this:

Robots

In 2021, there were 16,755 orders for industrial robots in the North American automotive sector and 22,953 orders for industrial robots from everywhere else, several thousand more than any other year on record. The $1.6 billion in orders was up 22 percent year over year. Demand is only rising: In the first quarter of 2022, orders for workplace robots were up 40 percent compared to the same quarter of 2021. The automobile business was responsible for 71 percent of robot orders in 2016, but the rest of the industrial economy has caught on to the appeal of robots, and now that share is down to 42 percent last year.

Bob Tita, The Wall Street Journal via NumLock

Assembly lines with people are vanishing. Factories that employed hundreds now employ a few engineers and technicians. Those skilled jobs require education and the ability to understand new technology. The people who do them are far more autonomous than yesterday’s factory workers. They are not trained on the job to operate a workstation, they are educated to program the machine to perform each new operation perfectly. In electronics, they program the computer that in turn programs the assembly line robots.

An electronics hobbyist today can design his new gadget using SPICE, an electronic drafting program that will simulate how it will perform in a virtual prototype. He or she can experimentally change or “tweak” component values until the design is optimized without ever buying a component or soldering. Once satisfied, the simulator will design a printed circuit board, finding the most efficient placement of parts and routing of connecting wires. That design, containing all the necessary manufacturing drawings and specifications, is a small computer file–one that can be emailed to vendors for quotes. In a matter of days, UPS will deliver an elegantly crafted, fully assembled device that will probably work without further tinkering. The only human that touched it was the hobbyist when he opened the package.

As if that weren’t remarkable enough, the moment has already arrived where humans are not capable of working with the tiny electronic components. The newest and smallest component parts do not lend themselves to hand assembly. Only a robotic system has the precision. Only a laboratory process can solder the connections. Soon enough the very expression “hand assembled” will seem dated.

Consider the printing press. Ben Franklin assembled individual characters taken from a type case, locked them into a frame, applied ink, and imprinted individual pages one at a time. Today, type cases are used to decorate walls and hold bric-a-brac. Print media are disappearing. You are reading this from an image on a screen. Ink and paper are not necessary or desirable for most communications like this humble essay. And there are computers now that can write better essays than this on any topic you choose, in any style you prefer, with or without footnotes.

Don’t look over your shoulder. Something out there wants your job.