My first Chinese factory visit was an eye opener. I naively imagined that the entire plant would be automated, but instead almost every operation was done by hand. I realized at that moment that the natural evolution of modern economies, like China, is that labor sets the way for machines. Labor starts off being very cheap, hiring bodies is more efficient than building or purchasing large equipment. Eventually, labor becomes too expensive through unions, pay raises, health costs, and other factors.
FoxConn, Apple’s preferred manufacturer, became the first large company to call for a completely robotic workforce to replace its overworked humans. To learn more about this, you can read my earlier post. Yesterday, Canon announced similar intentions with their digital camera production. Canon is one of the first Japanese consumer product companies to follow the path set by its larger automobile cousins. Lexus and Toyota are well-known for their automated plants in Japan. Canon’s reason – cost cutting, but there is something deeper in this significant multi-million dollar investment.
Canon, like FoxConn, wants to get out of the human labor business as costs are rising and criticism keeps mounting with new labor demands. In addition, the global economy requires quick inventory turn, 24 hours shifts, that are increasingly more complicated with human beings. While Japan is known for its interest in robotics, their ability to maintain technological prowess is on the line as China and India are gaining more traction in the high-tech industry.
Canon’s goal is to be completely automated by 2015. While the company spokesman reassured workers, “when machines become more sophisticated, human beings can be transferred to do new kinds of work,” it is clear that long term high-level engineering skills will be required to manage this robotic workforce. For example, in the late 1990s, Canon started to shift its “cell production” method to a team of workers and robots, that it now calls “man-machine cell.” It is rumored that eventually all human involvement in these cells will be phased out.
According to Akihito Sano, professor at Nagoya Institute of Technology, “human beings are needed to come up with innovations on how to use robots… going to a no-man operation at that level is still the world of science fiction.” While Sano’s comments seem like a no brainer, why is it that no American Presidential candidate is talking about beefing up the US’s own robotic production? Hey Obama, maybe it is time to stop blaming the ATM and the Internet for loosing jobs and embrace our new high-tech society. We need engineers at the board room table, not more humanists, to run our robotic workforce.