Life This Is Why It's A Fallacy To Think That Manufacturing Will Rescue The Country And Jobs

Published on September 18th, 2012 | by Steven Hodson


This Is Why It’s A Fallacy To Think That Manufacturing Will Rescue The Country And Jobs

This Is Why It's A Fallacy To Think That Manufacturing Will Rescue The Country And Jobs

It is a common refrain that we are hearing these days as we near the final leg of the American presidential election cycle and one that politicians, as well as their lackeys and the unions, are singing to the high heavens in their need to appease the voters.

The Pointless Refrain

The refrain of course is that we need to bring America back to being the global manufacturing giant that fueled the country, and made a small portion of the citizens very wealthy in the process, to being a superpower and made the so-called American dream something that anyone could aspire to – as long as their credit was good enough.

The other day I wrote here about how this manufacturing mindset is about to undergo the biggest assault that it has ever seen with the advent of cheap and personal 3D printing. As I wrote in that post:

In this case technology didn’t play as beneficial role when it came to families and young people. Technology was in fact speeding up the decline of manufacturing as companies look to replace people with machines in as many ways as they possibly could. Factories that remained in the US were forced to streamline which meant letting employees go and replacing them with ever increasingly competent technology.

As we head into the 2012 presidential election we are hearing a rising tide of politicians calling for the restoration of the United States as a manufacturing force to be reckon with; just like in the good old days, the problem is those days will never come back.

The fact is that the corporate leaders that run these diminishing number of American based manufacturing plants will do anything they possibly can to reduce the biggest cost to their business, that cost being of course – the employees. From the cost of training them to do the mindless repetitive work to the constant pressure from unions to increase wages to unjustifiable heights to the retirement packages that go on, an on, after the people have retired the biggest cost to any company is the very people it needs to make the company run and make money.

This is why there has always been the pressure to find cheaper places to build factories, and to pressure governments; both in America and foreign countries to do a little as possible to put barriers in their way. This is why there is always the hunt for ways to reduce the reliance on the human part of manufacturing which is why all the major manufacturing companies so readily moved to using robotics.

Swinging The Carrot

The manufacturing jobs that were once so plentiful, and are now being used as a carrot in front of the electorate – vote for me and I’ll do everything in my power to return America to its previous glory as a manufacturing giant – well those jobs are forever gone and no amount of carrot dangling will bring them back.

The other simple fact is that the companies don’t want them to come back, they don’t want to have to be paying out wages to people working manufacturing jobs and hurting their bottom line when instead they can keep on using robots of all types which not only are cheaper to “purchase” that it is to hire real people but those robots now become a depreciable asset that can be claimed against corporate taxes, plus sending a used up robot to the scrap heap when it is no longer any good is far cheaper than retirement packages for thousands of workers.

This move to robotics, and the subsequent devaluation of the human employee, was for the most part the realm of the big manufacturers because in all honesty robots are expensive to both buy, program for their needed uses, and for maintenance. This meant that for small manufacturing companies that they were still stuck having to employee the more expensive version of worker – the human being; but that is changing now as well.

Baxter – Small Manufacturing’s Savior

Today one of the more popular posts I saw come through my feed reader were the ones that were talking about the amazing and glorious arrival of “Baxter” with this being some of the most popular text that probably came right out of a press release:

Rethink Robotics is introducing Baxter to the manufacturing sector with a note: Baxter can ignite a revolution in breaking down costs and safety barriers holding back automation in American manufacturing. The Boston-based company says the $22,000 (list price) robot is a fraction of the cost of traditional industrial robots “with zero integration required.” Baxter has been expressly designed to work on assembly lines to perform menial tasks. Baxter has two arms, each with seven degrees of freedom, and a reach similar to that of a human, to take over the mindless menial tasks. It can load, unload, sort, pack, unpack, snap-fit, grind and polish.


I pretty well lost count of the number of blogs, tech and otherwise, that were gushing all over this news as if it was going to be the next great thing that would help propel America back to the forefront of manufacturing.

There’s only one problem with Baxter – this robot is being designed to take the jobs away from people in the last bastion of manufacturing that grudgingly employed real people, people who now would be facing the unemployment line because this new robot is being priced at such a point that companies would be stupid not to buy them.

You see the $22,000 sticker price for one of these robots is probably more than half of what a manufacturer has to pay a real employee for a yearly salary; and then on top of that they don’t have to deal with unions asking for yearly wage increases or job security; and then when the robot has to be replaced the old one gets thrown to the side with no real cost to the company and replaced with a newer, and probably cheaper, version.

But to add insult to injury the other big selling point that Baxter’s developers, Rethink Robotics, is that the robot will work right alongside human workers and that Baxter can be trained by those workers to do their job:

According to the company, the two-armed robot “can be trained just as you would teach a person.” This means that a regular factory worker could teach Baxter to perform a new task by physically guiding it through the required motions, within less than half an hour – no code-writing required. Once ithas learned a task, it is said to be able to apply common sense to what it’s doing. If it should drop an item, for instance, it will realize that it needs to get another one in order to complete its task.

via GizMag

Training Your Replacement

In other words the very workers that Baxter is intended to replace are the ones that can train it to do the job. So not only are workers capable of being replaced in the smallest of manufacturing businesses but they can be used to train the robot replacing them before being shown the door.

So, where once workers were able to find at least some kind of work in smaller manufacturing plants they are now facing a point where even  that option is being taking away and everyone is cheering on the robot under the illusion that this is going to restore the might of American manufacturing.

There’s only one problem with that – if you replace real people who are earning real money to spend with robots that don’t cost anything to any real degree but even more important don’t put back anything into the system then all you have is yet thousands and thousands of more unemployed people. People who have no opportunity to make their life, and their families lives, better. These are people who have next to no other options.

Manufacturing will survive and will probably do very well with the help of Baxter and others like it but to think that manufacturing in the United States is going to return to its heyday and employ millions of people id a punctured dream and any politician, lobby group, or business that shouts the stupid mantra of getting people back to work by “bringing manufacturing back to America” is full of shit and is preying on people’s need to believe that things can get better for them and their families.

In short they are liars and the sooner people realize this the better they will be, well not really better, but at least they will be dealing with a realistic situation.



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About the Author

Steven has been around the tech world long enough to see most of the stuff we think of cool happen before which leads to a certain bit of cynicism that has contributed to him being known as the cranky old fart of the Internet. Besides sharing some of the goodness that he finds with you here at 42x you can also find him curating some digital goodness at Winextra (tech type stuff) and Rotten Gumdrops (for your daily dose of WTF).

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