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Robots Help US Manufacturers Compete With China

  • Brian Padden

After decades of losing jobs to China and other low wage countries, the manufacturing sector in the United States is now expanding -- thanks in large part to the integration of advanced technology into production processes. While this development has so far sparked only a modest increase in employment, Some American manufacturers are optimistic that technology will create more highly skilled jobs for those workers being replaced by robots.

In what may be the beginning of a new trend in American manufacturing, Sunit Saxena recently moved his production operation from China to the United States.

“Just like everyone else we started in China because the cost of labor was low but then by the time we started and as we went further down this path they started raising the rates on us in China,” Saxena said.

Saxena is the CEO of Altierre Digital Retail in San Jose, California. The company makes digital price displays and signs for retail stores that can be updated from a computer.

Altierre now employs between 50 and 60 workers, fewer than it used to in China, and pays them about $10.00 an hour. Using new electronic testing stations, Saxena says the company has doubled productivity -- making it cost-competitive with China. The company is planning to increase automation -- not to replace all workers but to make labor an insignificant part of overall production costs.

“We can now increase our capacity and therefore we can get a lot more business, a lot more processing capability and small square footage with less number of people and make the people that we have way more productive than we could in the Far East,” Saxena said.

Earthbound Farm, one of the largest U.S. producers of organic foods, is also using technology to increase productivity. It recently deployed automated robots to pack its products. Each robot does the job that four workers used to do. But company Vice President Will Daniels says no one here has lost a job to technology.

“Instead of replacing those workers we’re actually providing them with a higher skill set. Those folks who were working on the line packing that product, where our robots are for example, are now actually operating the machines,” Daniels said.

Up to now, automation technology has been used mostly on tasks that require identical and repetitive motion. But technology developers like Troy Straszheim are building robots with new capabilities.

“The kinds of problems that are well solved in the industry today are ones that don’t involve a whole lot of thinking on the part of the robot or a whole lot of seeing. Therefore we are working on the eyes and brains for these robots,” Straszheim said.

Using cameras and sensors, Straszheim is developing machines that can recognize and select specific shapes -- creating robots that, in this case, could be used at loading docks and shipyards.

These technological innovations are helping U.S. manufacturing expand for the first time in a decade. And industry officials say automation will lead to more high skilled jobs and higher pay for workers over time as companies expand their operations in America.

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