Robot Or Not To Robot

There is a lot of news these days about robots, and how they will replace workers. Yes, there will be some automation to replace human beings in the work place. How soon? It is hard to say because of all the possibilities. Robots have done amazing things in car factories. They weld, they paint, they assemble, they replace human effort. Or do they? We tend to think a robot is human. It is not. A robot is a machine that is controlled by a computer. Who controls the computer? Answer, a human. Ah, but the level of artificial intelligence has grown rapidly, and computers can now think like humans. Maybe, yes, but maybe no. even with artificial intelligence (AI) software the amount of memory and programming it takes to get a machine to think like a human is enormous. But, computers are now defeating humans in the game of chess, isn’t that proof that AI is gaining on us? Yes, but again, the computer required to play chess at that level is enormous. We take our brains for granted, but within our skull resides a computer the likes of which no computer designer or programmer will ever be able to match. Well, at least not in my lifetime.

How about the claim that robots that look like people are now able to act as sex surrogates. I’m not ready to try that one, nor do I want to. The idea of placing my very valuable and sensitive member into a machine to pleasure myself gives me visions of gears and ratchets, and gnarly wheels that turn and grind and abrade, and well you get the idea. Robots are a poor choice for having sex, maybe only a little better than the blow up sex dolls available. Think about this, you are engaged in a passionate french kiss when the saliva from you tongue leaks into the robot’s circuitry and causes the electrons to short circuit making the robot lock its arms around you in a bear hug that leaves you breathless and lifeless.

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I worked at a factory and my primary goal was to reduce labor from the manufacturing process. After trying many concepts that failed our R&D boys came up with a novel idea that worked in a prototype system. We loved it and ran with it. The concept was workable, but the practical execution was not. My teams worked out a better mechanical way to make it work. Our system had problems too, but we continued to take baby-step improvement toward long term success. When we got the thing running smoothly and steady we switched to solve another problem which was start-up. The start-up procedure we invented was purely manual, and it took a skilled technician to make it happen. Often start-ups required ten or fifteen minutes to achieve. Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound like much in a twenty-four hour day, and it wouldn’t be if things ran smoothly for twenty-four hours. The whole system was complicated, and often problems totally unrelated to automation caused the system to shut down, and that required a new start-up. To make a very long story shorter this project took a team of too many engineers twenty-years to accomplish. At the end, the system was equal to a lights out operation with very few humans present. Except when an alarm sounded and the technical-department had to come to the rescue. Automation requires a level of expertise to maintain. Alley-garage level mechanics were not the level of experts it took to get to the heart of the problem.

If automation was so easy, why do companies choose to move their operations to China and places more remote? First is the cost of automation. Making machines to make things is expensive and time consuming. The investment required to automate is enormous. It is easier to pay very cheap wages to make things by hand.  Second, maintenance is expensive and automation requires highly skilled workers to maintain them, and highly skilled workers make a very good salary.

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After finally achieving the goal to automate an entire factory the owner decided to ship the whole thing to a foreign country anyway. Why? We cost him too much. True, he eliminated most of the labor of making the product, but he was going broke paying for the technical staff required to maintain the process, and to keep it running. Think about that sex-robot you are dreaming about. Again, you are actively engaged in the act with the robot when a previously undetected bug causes the bot to go wild and he sends an alarm to the tech-staff for help. In the meantime he shuts down with his arms locked around you in an embrace of passion. There you are stuck until the Robot-nerds can come from wherever they will come from to unfreeze the operation.

It is my professional opinion that robots have come a long way toward becoming successful workers in our society, however, they will require a staff of experts to manage and maintain. It will be years before they are reliable enough to be safe in our midst. Of course Hollywood will make them glamorous and desirable by showing us how useful and good they can be. Except, that Hollywood lies a lot in the name of creativity, and over simplifies, and glorifies the actual mechanics of operation.

Back in the thirties we had some wonderful automatic food dispensers called Automats. Previous to that there were automated food vending machines in Germany in the late eighteen hundreds. The systems in the US lost favor with the public for various reason, the main one being it worked on nickels only. Think about paying for your $4.95 hamburger in nickels. At twenty nickels to the dollar you would have to pump 99 nickels into the machine to get the burger. Of course we won’t have that problem because we use credit cards today, even for a candy bar.

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Robots replacing humans is a scare tactic used by businesses who stand to lose profit if political issues like a minimum wage are on the docket. In that regard a robot works, but I don’t believe the business people understand the technical issues that would drive them into bankruptcy. Eventually, robots will succeed in making our lives better, but for now I think they are just a vision of the future. I remember the sales pitch I got from computer salesman who convinced me of all the wonderful things I would be able to do with a personal computer.  He was right, except the computer he sold me was twenty-five years away from doing all those wonderful things. Mr. Robot is probably at that stage today.

We Need Good Paying Factory Jobs

Lathe operator machining parts for transport p...

Lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, USA (1942). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fashionable  rhetoric today involves a lot of BS about bringing high paying jobs back to America. This seems like just another ploy to feed the masses with what they want to hear. Libs love unions and unions like high paying factory jobs. The problem is that the unions have driven high paying jobs out of the country. Where did they go and why? Talk to Government Motors and they will tell you it is the unfair practices of their competitors who do not have to pay union benefits. They claim that benefits add $1500 of cost to each car. The UAW argues the high cost resulted from stupid business practice by the management. Meanwhile the American car makers go bankrupt and foreign car makers build factories in the USA. Hello! Is there a message here? The foreign companies settle in states with right to work laws, and away from large metropolitan areas teeming with anxious workers ready to unionize at first chance.

During my career as an engineer, I saw many factories. They made things like construction equipment, farm equipment, heavy presses for the auto industry, mining equipment, thermostats, airplanes, and electrical components. Yes, there were many good jobs in these industries. All of them suffered from the same malady, high labor costs. One of my jobs was to calculate the cost of a machine. It was a rigorous analysis dealing with making parts, applying the time to complete an operation and to multiply the time by an appropriate labor cost. When I finished, the cost went to the accountants and they began adding administrative costs, benefits, sales, inventory, and whole slew of other things which I didn’t really understand. Finally, they added profit. The machine I was so proud of turned into something no one could afford.

Cutting cost became my mantra. Each penny I could cut from a part meant the product may become salable.

After a number of jobs in heavy equipment, I settled in the electrical component industry. Over the course of forty years, my job was to cut the cost of an electrical component. The owner began by hiring people to run molding machines. He designed and made small molds to keep his investment low. As sales grew, he made bigger molds and bought larger molding machines, but they were still operated manually.

During the nineteen eighties the government  reduced capital gains taxes and the fun began. We couldn’t buy machinery fast enough to expand the business. Another thing happened. The owner shared his vision of a totally automated factory with us. It became my job to help him build a “lights-out” factory. That is a factory where there are no people just machines making product in the dark.

When I began work at this company, there were people running molding machines, handling product, inspectors examined the product for defects, people put product into plastic bags, they sealed the  plastic bags, applied labels, put the bags into shipping boxes, taped the boxes, and moved them to the shipping department. There were people tripping over themselves in a very busy and noisy environment.

In the beginning, the company had two competitors, one in the USA and one in England. When I left the company, the number of competitors was over two hundred, and most of them were in the far east. On one visit to China, my boss visited a competitor’s factory. He examined the part and could not differentiate the competitor’s from our own. The Chinese factory owner told him “we copy you because you have the best product.” The man ran a factory in a two-story building. He lived on the second floor above his factory. His molds were simple low cavitation tools. He did not use any machinery other than a molding machine, but he did use many workers. He paid them about a dollar an hour,, which was good pay in their country.

When I finally retired, I left an automated factory that was just a few operations short of  lights-out. The investment cost required to produce a single part cost between $500,000-750,000. The man in China invested $50,000 and used dollar an hour labor to do the rest.

When you here the politicians and unions demanding high paying jobs think about this: What kind of job is a high paying factory job today? What kind of people do we have ready to work? Do they have the credentials to work in a high paying jobs factory? Will those factories compete with Chinese labor?

Here are some videos to show you the difference between high paying factory jobs. The first one is an Apple factory in China, the second is a stamping plant in China (our stamping plants were never as crude or unsafe as this one), and finally a modern car manufacturer in Germany. When you watch the third video pay attention to the number of high paying workers assembling the cars.

1. Apple Factory ( a little long, but worth watching.)

2. Chinese stamping plant. Notice the six guys sitting around the die and ducking heads when the press comes down. During my 55 years of visiting factories I have never seen anything as crude or unsafe as the operation in this video in any US plant.

3. German car maker. The kind of jobs we envision when we talk about high paying union jobs.

The high paying jobs in the German factory involve skilled tradesmen far beyond the education level of the people we hope to use in our factories.

The USA is capable of matching the level of automation in the VW video above, I know, I worked to make such a process. We have the tool making, electronic, and engineering skills needed. What we don’t have are enough people who know how to read, and do simple math well enough to work on a complicated factory floor.

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