Regardless of the assurances, I am concerned that we have started down a very slippery slope and in a generation or two we will have personless factories and maybe personless offices. When that happens where will humans be earning salaries and hence, are going to be buying the stuff the factories will be churning out and who will pay for the offices; and - indeed - what will be done in those offices?
Is anyone in government, whether Chinese, Swedish, Japanese or American, putting their minds to this frightening future?
"A new generation of machines is gradually transforming this electronics factory in China’s manufacturing hub.Inside the sprawling factory, owned by Jabil Circuit Inc.—the world’s third-largest contract manufacturer for companies such as Apple Inc. and Electrolux SA—robotic arms assemble circuit boards as driverless components-laden carts glide nearby. Machines also are starting to replace workers in checking circuit-board assemblies for errors.
“This is the past,” said David Choonseng Tan, an operations director at Jabil, pointing to a line of workers hunched over the assembly line. “And this,” he said, gesturing to a line of machines next to them, “is the future.”
Rapidly changing product models make it challenging for electronics companies like Jabil to automate all aspects of the assembly process, according to John Dulchinos, a vice president at the company. Still, Jabil has increasingly embraced automation and advanced technology, a shift encouraged by the Chinese government as the world’s second-largest economy grapples with labor shortages and high costs that are making neighboring countries like Vietnam increasingly competitive for mass production.
Manufacturers elsewhere in the world are also investing in automation and robotics in an effort to wean themselves off “chasing the needle”—moving to ever-lower-cost countries in pursuit of cheap labor.
In Stockholm, Sweden, roughly 8,000 miles away from China, fuel-cell maker myFC has built a 2,000 square-foot smart factory that will eventually have five robots doing the work of 20 full-time humans. The robots assemble power cards used for portable electronic devices while 3D printers churn out prototypes of new designs.
“We are building one cell, then we can export that to any country, any customer,” says Bjorn Westerholm, chief executive of myFC.
Jabil says that it’s hoping that a key piece of its automation—a boxy white platform it calls Flexi-Auto Cell—can also be redeployed at factories elsewhere in the world. The idea, according to Jabil, is for technology to be able to emulate the worker’s flexibility in switching from one task to another.
Jabil’s vision of manufacturing, however, isn’t one in which machines will replace workers completely, but rather one in which they’re freed up to focus on less-tedious tasks.
“We are not going for a lights-off factory,” says KC Ong, a senior vice president of operations for Jabil. In the factory of the future, “we’ll still have a lot of people.”"