Rise of the machines
By Chico Harlan
Aug 5 2017
The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.”
“We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said.
They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor. The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and earplugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.
The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows. One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work. That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.
In factory after American factory, the surrender of the industrial age to the age of automation continues at a record pace. The transformation is decades along, its primary reasons well-established: a search for cost-cutting and efficiency.
But as one factory in Wisconsin is showing, the forces driving automation can evolve — for reasons having to do with the condition of the American workforce. The robots were coming in not to replace humans, and not just as a way to modernize, but also because reliable humans had become so hard to find. It was part of a labor shortage spreading across America, one that economists said is stemming from so many things at once. A low unemployment rate. The retirement of baby boomers. A younger generation that doesn’t want factory jobs. And, more and more, a workforce in declining health: because of alcohol, because of despair and depression, because of a spike in the use of opioids and other drugs.
In earlier decades, companies would have responded to such a shortage by either giving up on expansion hopes or boosting wages until they filled their positions. But now, they had another option. Robots had become more affordable. No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate. As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of small- and medium-size companies that had previously depended only on the workers who lived just beyond their doors. Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker — humans and robots. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.
“Right here, okay?” the forklift driver yelled over the noise of the factory, and when a manager gave him a nod, he placed on the ground the boxes containing the two newest employees at Tenere, Robot 1 and Robot 2.