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The Robot Revolution

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For as long as I can remember, people have been fascinated with robots. Arguably, Artoo-DeToo and C-3PO were the most compelling characters in the Star Wars movies, with all due respect to Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Robots have always been a staple of science fiction.

But according to a recent report in The Kiplinger Letter, robots are transitioning from science fiction fantasy into daily reality, and their most important venue is manufacturing. The numbers are impressive. In 2012, manufacturers designed and shipped about 180,000 industrial robots, about 50 percent more than the year before, and by 2015 annual sales are expected to top 207,000.

The widespread use of robots in manufacturing -- where they fill an obvious role performing rote tasks with precision -- may have been delayed by the General Motors debacle of the 1980s when GM invested about $90 billion in an effort to incorporate robots into their manufacturing processes. The robots famously painted each other and welded car doors shut. GM took a bath. The technology simply was not up to the challenge in those days.

But today it is. Dramatic changes in technology enable cutting-edge robots to perform a wide variety of basic manufacturing tasks across a broad range of industries. They are reliable, powerful, precise and immune to fatigue. They show up every day for work and never demand higher wages or expensive benefits. And as the cost of human labor is rising, the cost of robots is declining. Modern robots "access search engines and massive data bases, acquiring 3D models, maps, schematics and instructions on how to tackle novel tasks," Kiplinger said. And "cloud computing will eliminate the need for robots to have large onboard processors."

Robots are becoming more sophisticated by the day. Advanced sensors are allowing them to adapt to changing environments and act independently. In many factories that I have visited in recent years, robots are much in evidence working away hour after hour, doing the same tasks without making mistakes. They have become basic to auto and truck manufacturing, and are showing up more and more with food and beverage makers, meat processors, paint shops, electronics manufacturers, rubber, plastics, etc. Anything that requires repetitive human labor is a candidate for robot technology.

The two most obvious impacts of this expanded reliance on robots are increased productivity and quality which will do wonders for our economy in the years ahead, and more displacement of workers, aggravating our stubborn unemployment problem. Yet history teaches us that even though advances in technology always have a human toll in the near term, they contribute to prosperity in the long term. The fact is, manufacturing in the U.S. has been moving away from labor intensive work processes for many years. Advancing robot technology will heighten demand for highly skilled labor. The need for a more effective system for training young workers for jobs in modern manufacturing will become more pressing than ever.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. January 2013