February 11, 2010

Pancake Stacking

The blog Singularity Hub has a post about robots in factories. The post includes 5 pretty cool videos (plus one commercial, which is fictional). I thought the best video was this one:

There's something so mundane about the task here. In a lot of ways it's hard to believe it's not just easier to have people do the stacking. While the robot is super fast, it's only doing a single pancake at a time. I imagine a person would scoop up a few and plop them down already stacked together.

At any rate they must have done all the math and figured this is better or cheaper or both. Whenever I open a toy for the kids I wonder what steps in the assembly were performed by robot vs. human. Did a person twist tie all these wretched wires immobilizing poor Dora, or was that automated? We the consumer are generally oblivious. Maybe some day every product will be required to come with a "making of" video, so we can evaluate the production ourselves.

For example here's a video of a Chinese factory where they are stamping some kind of metal part:

Talk about poor working conditions and a mindless repetitive task. So who decides when it makes sense to drop in some fancy industrial robot to take their place? It's clearly an economic decision and the cost of labor is probably the major factor.

Ultimately as wages rise and robotics get cheaper there will be more and more automation and less factory workers. But how long does that switch-over take, given that factories are being built all the time, many in low-wage countries? It seems a complex dance between economics and technology that will play out in the coming decades.

Ultimately robots will "win" because they will just keep getting cheaper while human wages should go up over time. Historically when automation takes over an industry (like farming in the US) the lost jobs are more than made up for by entirely new jobs which didn't exist before (like computer programming). Hopefully that will continue to happen.

At any rate the transition is going to take time. Even if the robots were perfect and free today there would be some transition, as new factories were planned and constructed. And those robotic pancake pickers can't be cheap. There are no prices on the FlexPicker website, but feel free to contact them with your intended application and they will be in touch.

1 comment:

  1. This book chapter on The Curse of Machinery argues strongly that automation does not cause job loss. For direct reasons not just the creation of unrelated jobs like I mentioned.