Saturday, June 16, 2007

Unemployed Robots

On slashdot there is this slideshow of a visit to a motherboard factory in Taiwan, or as I like call it Free China. Many, especially those who have seen electronics factories over the years noted how unautomated the factory is compared to Califronian or Japanese electronic factories in the '80s. Many blamed globalization for making people cheaper than machines. Mechanization has historically happened when the capital and running cost for a machine is cheaper than the extra hands it replaces.

Animats pointed how the decline of low skill wages because of illegal immigration has deautomated some service jobs in the US.
It's discouraging. I've watched America go from robotic car washes to "100% hand wash" over the last 25 years.

The assembly line for the Macintosh IIci was more automated than this one. Back in the 1980s, when consumer electronics came from Japan, the Japanese makers were frantically trying to automated enough to keep their labor costs down. Seiko and Sony developed some beautiful technologies for making small consumer electronics items untouched by human hands.

Now everybody has those long lines of low-paid women in some low-wage area.

But denoir points out the dimishing return of automation.

Many of the things don't have to be made by hand, but it is simply cheaper. And it's not just in Taiwan.

A few years ago I worked on a project at ABB Robotics (largest maker of industrial robots) and had the chance to often see their production lines. Once upon a time their assembly lines were automated to a large degree, until they realized that their throughput wasn't big enough to benefit from robots doing the work. People were cheaper and needed less maintenance. When you built a new robot model, you could use the same people - with little extra education required. Robots on the other hand required expensive reprogramming and testing for each small change.

When I was there they were just dismantling the last robot in the line - the one that painted new robots. Instead they outsourced it and now three guys in gas masks spray paint them manually.

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