Don’t Add Manufacturing Jobs, Give Them to Robots

We should be looking for more rewarding work in the U.S.

Jeep might not be moving its construction centers over to China, and manufacturing numbers may be up for the second month straight, but the future of U.S. factories isn’t certain. In one of the most hotly contested talking points in this year’s presidential race, it’s become increasingly clear that we’re not entirely sure how to bring back manufacturing jobs to U.S. soil and keep them here while advancing the industry as a whole.

Mitt Romney is calling for tax cuts and lower operating costs for factory owners, while President Obama wants to see an emphasis on research and development, along with a focus on workforce training. Admirable, but in this sense, our two presidential hopefuls are looking to provide solutions to manufacturing problems that would have been more effective last century. We live in a world of ones and zeroes now. So let the robots do it—they’ve already replaced some six million manufacturing jobs as it is.

Adept Technologies, recently profiled in a stellar New York Times video, produces some of the world’s most advanced, delicate and commercially useful factory robots on the planet. Able to handle highly detail-oriented tasks with an alarming rate of uniformity, Adept’s robots represent not only where we’re at now with automatic manufacturing, but where we’re going. They’re quick, accurate and can work directly alongside their human counterparts, however few there are left. Some day, they might not have to share the space.

Well, here’s to hoping, anyway.

As a general rule, it seems that a good long-term goal for any society should be the elimination of unfulfilling, unskilled, repetitive labor, replacing that instead with knowledge-based jobs in science, the arts, artisanal manufacturing and technical, skilled labor. The best way to do that appears to be to unman the factories and allow us wage earners to go earn wages through other pursuits. Easier said than done, sure, but applying bandages like tax cuts to a failing manufacturing industry composed largely of unskilled human beings doesn’t come any closer to an actual solution.

And that’s because neither Obama nor Romney is willing to address the endemic causes of the problem.

That we have unskilled laborers at all should be an indictment of our education system overall, not necessarily just our employment system. But solving the problem of employing the unskilled or undereducated should not be done by supplying unskilled jobs like packaging lettuce at the expense of advancing technology. It should, however, be solved by providing the unskilled with proper opportunities to acquire skills through education.

That, at least in part, would require solving the problems that get in the way of education—drug abuse, racism, economic class, and so on. No wonder the Prez and his potential successor don’t want to talk about it.

Again, I know, easier said than done—but, frankly, you can’t stop technology, so we’d better hurry up. We’re already trending toward an autonomous society. There are three U.S. states with self-driving car legislation on the books, and just as autonomous vehicles are the next step for cars, autonomous manufacturing is the next step for factories and most other technology. Besides that, the 3D printing revolution that’s getting ready to crest will render small parts manufacturing of the unskilled type pretty much obsolete. We can’t very well stop the advancement of manufacturing tech until our social systems catch up.

In that sense, we can either keep our current factory employment system as technology stands poised to ruin the model, or we can embrace that technology in the form of automated production and start fixing the future’s problems before they occur. Either way, there doesn’t seem to be much room for humans in tomorrow’s factories.

Make no mistake: We’re in the middle of the world’s third industrial revolution. Whether the United States comes out on top will depend largely on how well we embrace the coming change in the technological tide. And with U.S. exports up by about a third over the past decade despite an equal drop in manufacturing employment, the way we’re going seems to be pretty clear.

So maybe this current round of unemployment is a good sign, after all. Bring in the robots.