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Monday, September 1, 2014

Will Robots Drive Manufacturing Back to the U.S.?

An example of an automated robotic arm. Source: Daniel Means

An example of an automated robotic arm. Credit: Daniel Means

Automated robots are producing manufactured and machined consumer and industrial goods around the world, but obstacles remain for wide-scale adoption, The New York Times reports.

The article contrasts two different work facilities: a Philips Electronics factory in Zhuhai, China, where hundreds of low-skilled workers hand-assemble electronic consumer products, and a plant in Drachten, the Netherlands, where automated robotic arms construct similar products. The piece notes that the robotic arms “don’t need coffee breaks,” but also that their production efficiency is not quite cost effective for wider adoption — not yet, at least.

“At what point does the chainsaw replace Paul Bunyan?” Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics products based in Silicon Valley, is quoted as saying. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”

The article notes that in some regions of America, automation is already at that price point. In one example, the article cites: “A robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.”

However, the article continues — even as costs drop — that robot efficiency remains imperfect. “You have to have people around anyway,” Bran Ferren, roboticist at Apllied Minds, says in the article. “And people are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in or slip the hose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do.”

Balancing cost and efficiency issues will continue to pose challenges to manufacturers hoping to drive manufacturing back to the United States from China.

Check out the full article here.

Brian Lane




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