Should factory workers fear a robot onslaught?

James Morgan asks whether automation poses a threat to workers

James Morgan.
James Morgan.

Ever since Ned Ludd unleashed his anger on a pair of unsuspecting stocking frames at the end of the 18th Century, machines have made frontline factory workers more than a little jittery.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that this concern has been unwarranted. After all, the earliest industrial automatons were expressly intended to maximise the profits of factory owners by minimising the need for costly employees. These were – by design – labour-saving devices.

But is this fear still justified in today’s market? The technology has certainly advanced, but does the historic principle hold true? Should modern-day manual workers fear the rise of the robots?

Well, it still seems legitimate to worry about a robot that can do your job, but without demanding such trivialities as food, water, and sleep? Egad, these machines don’t even ask for wages – humanity doesn’t stand a chance!

Times might have changed significantly during the past 250 years, but the raison d’être of companies has remained constant: to make money. I can assure you that my tone wouldn’t be so glib had boffins written a computer programme capable of discussing the finer points of a backhoe loader.

Even so, I would argue that the global manufacturing landscape has shifted sufficiently for we humans to give our robot counterparts a pass. And here’s why.

Automation is still about maximising profits. However, this goal is not necessarily achieved by cutting costs. Take, for example, Spanish generator and light tower manufacturer, Himoinsa. I recently journeyed the company’s production facilities on the Iberian Peninsula to take a look at its impressive robotic manufacturing and assembly processes [page 28].

Himoinsa makes no bones about its commitment to automated production, and the manufacturer has made significant investments to this end. Yet despite this tech-savvy approach, Himoinsa has not disposed of its human workforce. I noticed no dearth of organic matter during my tour of the firm’s plants. Indeed, the company boasts more than 1,000 – totally human – employees worldwide.

So why did Himoinsa plough so much time, money, and effort into automation? Did it become all gooey-eyed and sentimental, just before enacting a company-wide programme of redundancies? Of course it didn’t. The firm invested in automatons to ensure consistency across its product range. Himoinsa’s robots aren’t maximising profits by usurping human workers; they are doing so by facilitating them.

It’s a sad fact that in today’s manufacturing sector, manual workers are more likely to be replaced by humans on the other side of the planet – being paid a fraction of their wages – than they are machines. In truth, the livelihoods of factory workers were never under threat from the automatons themselves. Young Master Ludd would have been better remonstrating with the human owner of his particular factory.

As Himoinsa and countless other modern-day manufacturers have shown, a robot in the hands of a scrupulous factory owner is no bad thing. In this journalist’s opinion, neo-Luddism won’t become necessary until the machines learn
how to edit business magazines.

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