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Will robots put humans out of work?

10 Oct 2014  | Ann Thryft

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IRF's study, which focuses on Brazil, China, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea and United States, found that manufacturing jobs in newly industrialising countries are a larger proportion than in the U.S. and have thus risen sharply. In already developed countries, output and the use of robotics both increased while manufacturing employment decreased slightly overall.

That decline, however, has been steep in the U.S. and almost nonexistent in Germany, although both countries doubled their robot rate of use.

ABB robot

About 30 robots from ABB are installed at Australian automotive parts manufacturer Mett, where they do jobs ranging from machine tending, sawing and deburring to ladling, palletizing, gluing, assembly work, and cleaning. (Source: ABB)

This occurred during increases in overall paid employment in most of the six countries. Overall job increases have been in two main areas: distribution and services, plus new products manufacturing, especially consumer electronics.

The worldwide robotics industry also created about 170,000 to 190,000 jobs directly, plus a similar number for support staff and operators. This means that between 2000 and 2011, all new jobs due to robotics—not just within robotics itself—reached 750,000.

A much bigger job source comes from downstream activity to support manufacturing that's only done by robots. For example, consumer electronics is robotics' poster child for job growth. Automation made the electronics industry possible, and robots have made the mobile electronics industry possible. That's because they can manufacture everything precisely, quickly, and cheaply enough, the overwhelming reason to use robots. The IRF estimates a total of 8 to 10 million jobs created by 2008 and another 750,000 more by 2011. The other industry sector leading this growth is automotive.

The IRF study also points out that, if not for robots, some jobs would disappear. Robots either create or preserve jobs in three areas where only they can do the work. These are where conditions are unsatisfactory or illegal for people; where the product can't be made precisely, consistently, or cheaply enough by humans; and where the high labour costs in the manufacturing unit of a developed country are threatened by a manufacturing unit in another area with low labour costs.

Sectors that already employ robots the most are those with high labour costs, such as the robotics industry, robot operation, and automotive, and in industrialized countries. This contrasts with low robot usage in industrializing countries with large pools of low-wage human workers, such as China.

New jobs will be created by increases in robot use in several areas. Expansion will occur in the robotics industry itself, such as service robots, and also in the automotive and electronics industries. In automotive, robots are used mostly in the body shop doing jobs like welding and painting, but less so in final assembly, an area prime for growth. In the US, the IRF study estimates 37 per cent of automotive jobs could be done by robots.

World robotics use will increase hugely in the alternative energy, food & drink, and chemicals/rubber and plastic manufacturing sectors, due in large part to their health hazards. The food-processing industry especially is one where many low-wage human jobs may also be at risk, followed by plastics manufacturing and metal foundries. In food & drink manufacturing, jobs done by robots in the US could be 30 per cent, but only about 10 per cent for the chemicals/rubber and plastic manufacturing sectors.

The study estimates that, by 2016, two to three jobs will be created directly by every industrial robot in use, and two to three more for indirect downstream jobs. This is based on the assumption that, as has happened historically, jobs displaced by robots in manufacturing will be replaced by jobs created downstream, or in new industries.

A contrary view is that service robots will themselves take over jobs currently performed by people in banking, fast food restaurants, and gas station convenience stores, for example. So what will happen when when robots become mobile, intelligent and self-maintaining?

- Ann Thryft
  TechOnline India

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