CHICAGO (CBS) — Robotics can lead to greater productivity, but also disrupt what jobs look like in the 21st century. Hundreds of robots are moving into the Ford Motor Co. Chicago Assembly Plant on Torrence Avenue.
On Monday, CBS 2 Morning Insider Vince Gerasole took us inside the changing face of employment.
The real-life robots don’t look anything like R2-D2, but they are mesmerizing. After an investment of $1 billion, some 600 of the robots are now helping build new vehicles at the Torrence Avenue Ford plant.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a more technical system in the world than what we’ve got right here,” a manager said.
Ford insists the robots aren’t pushing workers aside. The automaker employs 5,000 and says that figure includes 500 new employees brought on specifically for the robotic system.
Ford also retrained veteran staff to adapt to the new technology.
“I’m a tech guy. I’m a nerd. So, you know, it like was easy peasy for me,” said Ford worker Rodney Washington. “But for us, a lot of older people with more seniority – you know, it took them a while to catch on.”
Automation may be what keeps the Ford plant alive. But the question persists – are the current levels of employment sustainable in the future?
CBS 2 brought that question to minds innovating with mechanics daily at the robotics lab at Northwestern University.
“The nature of employment might be changing,” said Todd Murphey, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern.
Murphey said with industries growing more automated each day, certain jobs may be disappearing. But that’s not the whole story.
“If you are talking about hundreds of robots in a manufacturing plant, all of those robots require constant care,” he said. “That’s certainly people being employed, but being employed for something different.”
Figuring out how to retrain workers is a challenge stretching beyond a single industry.
“That is a real consequence for what the job opportunities are going to be,” Murphey said.
A switch to robotics also has its quirks.
“It is amazing how often robots don’t work,” Murphey said.
At certain tasks, robots just aren’t as precise as humans. That is why Amazon still uses people to pack its boxes, and Ford needs manual workers to fit its doors onto a frame.
With time and innovation, that will change. But will the global workforce be ready for the repercussions?
“What is their model for automation and robotics that makes the sum greater than the parts?” Murphey said.
The U.S. ranks seventh in the world when it comes to the reliance on robots in factories, with approximately 200 robots for every 10,000 assembly line workers.