Automation in factories: a threat to workers, or a benefit?

Andrzej Gressowski, a 36-year-old Polish car parts factory worker with a 15-year career as a machinist, was finding it increasingly difficult to get work. Most factories are located far from cities, and Gressowski knew…

Automation in factories: a threat to workers, or a benefit?

Andrzej Gressowski, a 36-year-old Polish car parts factory worker with a 15-year career as a machinist, was finding it increasingly difficult to get work. Most factories are located far from cities, and Gressowski knew that his hourly wage had not been keeping up with rising costs.

“It’s very hard to find work when the pay isn’t rising,” he said.

To help solve that problem, he was selected for an assignment by Stratasys, a manufacturer of 3-D printers and prototyping machines. At Stratasys, Gressowski and approximately 800 other candidates were each given a self-starter station at the end of their shifts. With the help of a driving robot that was programmed to receive data from the station, the candidates could log their time logged on their phones. If they liked the work enough, they could be hooked up to a remote robotic system, which could record and manage the cycle through an industrial journey.

The process is meant to be both automated and quick. The automated system only needs data from the station, since sensors on the machine can tell the movement of the robot in real time. A total of 10,000 shuttle trips are recorded per shift.

On the other end of the process is Stratasys, which estimates that automation can help reduce the workforce by up to half, saving the company between $8 million and $10 million per year.

Stratasys, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands, was one of the first companies to embrace the robot-assisted robot-drive technology. It not only drives vehicles, but also builds them — a requirement given its role in the operation of the 3-D printing business. From 2013 to 2015, the company took the technology a step further, adding chatbot-like software called MemoFLO that can facilitate some of the primary tasks that human workers in high-tech factories are prone to. It can send reminders and gives information such as how many lathes are in the machine bank, where all employees sit, and so on.

While Stratasys’ technology has gone through its own kind of evolution, there are other companies in the field that do not lag far behind. Other machinery companies such as Robocaddler, Graftex and AIST have had similar programs for some time.

Claudia Perez Campos is director of software at the Academy of Robot Technology, a non-profit organization in Santander, Spain. She said that one of the main applications of automation is the one in factory production. She argued that low-end production lines have been replaced by “captive parts.” “The robot is not the end product, it’s the final production,” Campos said.

In these cases, she said, a human is required to handle the parts during testing and additional inspection.

Yet some human workers are not opposed to the development of robots, which can replace them in different industries. Norbert Wolff, head of Rheinmetall Defence Systems’ management for robotics, understands that the employees of each industry can benefit from enhanced efficiency through a technological development. Although many companies are beginning to implement or even revamp their existing lines of work to include the use of robot-assisted drives, Wolff sees it as an immediate shift that will take some time to attract workers to new tasks, or even replace people in the remaining jobs. “I think it’s easy to understand the motivation of an employer who wants to have their machines moving instead of people,” he said. “But everyone expects to see a bigger picture.”

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