Friday, March 10, 2017

ROTR*

Jack Hough, writing in Barrons has a story on the rise of the robots. Nothing sensational here, but it looks at the state of play, especially from an international point of view.

As President Donald Trump prevents manufacturers from leaving the U.S., expect them to use robots to keep labor costs down. While this trend is likely to be greeted with alarm by union leaders, the case can be made that using robots actually helps keep whole industries from exiting American shores. Among U.S. car makers, which have been enthusiastic robot buyers in recent years, domestic employment has been not only steady, but rising. A far greater threat to U.S. workers than mechanized colleagues turning up at hometown plants is the warm welcome robots are receiving in China.

Already the world’s largest buyer of robots, China plans to close the gap with developed nations on robot density, or the number of robots in service per human worker. The idea isn’t just to drive down production costs. It’s to improve quality and one day compete more effectively in high-value goods like cars. It’s also to offset the million workers per year that China is expected to lose as its population ages. In the U.S., the demographic challenge is less dire, but present. The working population is growing slowly, at about 0.5% a year.

The US does a lot of robot research, but the big industrial robots are made elsewhere, mainly in Asia. Interestingly enough, one of the primary drivers of robotization is not cost, but quality:

“Historically, the reason China hasn’t been able to export its cars is that the cars are crap, and that’s because they’ve been made using humans, rather than robots,” says Frank Tobe, editor of the Robot Report, an industry newsletter. “Now, China has a strategic long-term plan to deploy more robots, and the U.S. is only giving lip service.”

Like the industrial revolution, this is a game we can't afford not to play. Robots will destroy jobs, but they will also increase production. In principle, that could mean more for everybody - or a lot more for a tiny few, and nothing for everyone else. The original industrial revolution gave us plenty of examples of each. *Rise of the Robots