Thursday, September 7, 2017

Manufacturing Returns to the US, but Beware, the Robots are Coming

Mass producing clothing has traditionally required a little skill and a lot of labor.  Apparel manufacturers have responded to that fact by moving their production to countries where cheap labor was readily available.  That tactic has provided needed income to poor nations and provided inexpensive clothing to the rest of the world.  This process has been going on for decades.  Consequently, it was interesting to note that one of China’s largest apparel producers was actually investing in a plant to produce clothing in Arkansas for sale in the US market.  It was not attracted by cheap labor in Arkansas; rather, it was coming for the opportunity to eliminate labor.  Kevin Hamlin provides background on this activity in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek.  The article was titled The 33ȼ T-Shirt in the magazine version.  Online it became China Snaps Up America’s Cheap Robot Labor.

Automation can easily reproduce complex precision acts once performed by humans.  They have a more difficult time with simpler tasks requiring a lot of hand manipulation.  The human hand is a wondrous device and some of its actions, such as the sewing and stitching of clothing have resisted robotic duplication.  That apparently is changing.  An American outfit called Softwear Automation is producing “sewbots.”

“It took seven years for Softwear Automation, founded in 2007 by a group of engineers from Georgia Tech, to introduce its first sewbot, which is capable of making bathmats and towels. A $1.8 million grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded the work.”

The sewbots are not yet capable of producing all types of clothing, but their developers believe it will just be a matter of time until they are.

“Stitching a dress shirt with a breast pocket requires about 78 separate steps. Tricky, but such a bot is coming, says the chief executive officer of Softwear Automation, Palaniswamy Rajan: ‘We will roll that out within the next five years’.”

Once you can go beyond the complexity of towels and bathmats, the next step up in difficulty is t-shirts.  That is what has attracted the Chinese.

“By early 2018, Tianyuan Garments Co., based in the Suzhou Industrial Park in eastern China, will unveil a $20 million factory staffed by about 330 robots from Atlanta-based Softwear Automation Inc. The botmaker and garment company estimate the factory will stitch about 23 million T-shirts a year. The cost per shirt, according to Pete Santora, Softwear’s chief commercial officer: 33¢.”

This plant is expected to produce about 400 jobs in Arkansas.  It should provide even lower cost t-shirts and keep more of our consumer dollars circulating within the US than if the goods had been manufactured elsewhere.  It becomes relatively easy to move manufacture to the markets where the product will be sold.  Those are good things.  However, this development also generates some concerns for the future.

Human labor cannot compete with that cost for producing t-shirts.  Soon other tasks will be automated and gradually one of the most prominent paths for poor countries to improve their economies will disappear.  Poor countries must be able to sell something in order to acquire funds needed to purchase the components required to develop a modern society.  If all a nation has to sell is cheap labor, time is rapidly running out for it.

We in the US should also be concerned by this development. Automation has led to the elimination of moderately-skilled jobs in manufacturing and other occupations.  Those who have found work after losing those jobs have generally ended up in lower-skilled occupations.  As robotics becomes more competitive an option for those positions, where might one go next?

If nearly all work can be replicated by a machine, then we face enormous economic changes that will require a complete rethinking of our social contract.  Clearly, someone has to make the robots—at least until the robots decide to make themselves—so at least some work will persist, but it is time to begin taking note of where technology is taking us.

Alec Ross produced an interesting look at what the growth industries of the future might be in his book The Industries of the Future.  Robotics is, of course, one of his targeted areas.

“A few countries have already established themselves as leading robot societies.  About 70 percent of total robot sales take place in Japan, China, the United States, South Korea, and Germany—known as the ‘big five’ in robotics.  Japan, the United States, and Germany dominate the landscape in high-value industrial and medical robots, and South Korea and China are major producers of less expensive consumer-oriented robots.  While Japan records the highest number of robot sales, China represents the most rapidly growing market, with sales increasing by 25 percent every year since 2005.”

Japan attracts considerable interest because it faces a future in which it will have fewer people than jobs, thus making advances in robotics a necessity.  Much development is aimed at providing the low-skilled labor necessary to care for their aging population.  While its population is aging, its population is also declining.  There will simply not be enough workers to care for the elderly using traditional methods.

Ross lists some of the directions development is taking in eliminating the need for low-skilled human labor.

“Panasonic created a 24-fingered hairwashing robot that has been tested in Japanese salons.  The robot will likely be installed in hospitals and homes as well.  It measures the shape and size of the customer’s head and then rinses, shampoos, conditions, and dries the customer’s hair using its self-advertized ‘advanced scalp care’ abilities.”

“Right now at the Manchester Airport in England, robot janitors use laser scanners and ultrasonic detectors to navigate while cleaning floors.  If the robot encounters a human obstacle, it says in a proper English accent, ‘Excuse me, I am cleaning,’ and then navigates around the person.”

Restaurant jobs, ever a refuge for the marginally employed, are also at risk.

“There is potential for robots to replace many of those waitstaff jobs over time.  It’s already happening in trial forms in many restaurants around the world.  In Asia, many countries are starting to experiment with adopting robots in their restaurants.  The Hajime restaurant in Bangkok solely uses robot waiters to take orders, serve customers, and bus tables.  Similar restaurants are cropping up in Japan, South Korea, and China.  These robots, designed by the Japanese company Motoman, are programmed to recognize an empty plate and can even express emotion and dance to entertain customers.  It’s unclear exactly how you tip for good service.”

It is well known that pets are popular with and beneficial to the elderly whose infirmities restrict their mobility.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a pet that couldn’t wreck a carpet?

“….a Japanese industrial automation company AIST has created PARO, a robot baby harp seal covered in soft white fur.  PARO exhibits many of the same behaviors as a real pet.  Designed for those who are too frail to care for a living animal or who live in environments that don’t allow pets, such as nursing homes, it enjoys being held, gets angry when hit, and likes to nap.  When President Barak Obama met PARO a few years ago on a tour of Japanese robotics innovations, he instinctually reached out and rubbed its head and back.  It looks like a cute stuffed animal, but costs $6,000 and is classified by the US government as a class 2 medical device.”

Not many of the jobs of today may be available in the near future.  This could be an opportunity to “live the good life” with abundant leisure to use profitably.  If this is our future, then we will have to be educated and learn how to use leisure in a way that brings satisfaction.  We cannot all be educated to be robot builders.  On the other hand, if we proceed without planning for the future we could end up with chaos and strife that are beyond belief.

The interested reader might find the following article informative:

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