As a kid, I sat around watching The Jetsons all the while planning out exactly what flying car I wanted when I was older: sea foam green with fins and chrome detailing. Little did I know, what I was watching was not my future at all but rather a future thought up twenty-five years before I was born by a guy named Hanna and his buddy Barbera. Once I realized this, I parked my dreams of a flying car with my other childhood dreams in Disney’s Tomorrowland, the only place on Earth where the future can actually look old. And while I don’t have a flying car or a robot maid (Sorry, Rosie), perhaps this future isn’t as distant as I may have thought. I mean, robots are used conceivably at every hour of everyday, just not in maid form.
When Ford designed its take on the assembly line in the early 1900s, it merely consisted of a moving conveyor belt flanked by capable men, and yet, with it they were able to create their famed Model T. The thought of moving work from one person to the next only to be greeted by a completed piece at the end of the line not only streamlined the work, but it ensured that the hands at the end of each piece was experienced in that exact task. This was made possible through repetition. Cut to one hundred years later, and this streamlined model has been streamlined even further. Enter the robot.
While robots have existed in some form for nearly half a century, it wasn’t until the eighties that robots really made their big debut in the welding industry. And which part of the industry was that? None other than automotive. For years, robotic arms have worked tirelessly (literally) to assemble cars. While they initially were only used for spot welding, nowadays these arms can be caught arc welding at any point in the day. No 9-5 for these robots. They can run for hours on end without tiring. Don’t get me wrong, these robots came from much humbler beginnings. Early on, the use of these robots was limited by such concerns as costs and accountability. I mean, if a car part is welded incorrectly, you can’t exactly fire a robot, can you? But soon, the following was considered.
Many jobs in the welding industry are dangerous. In order to keep workers safe, a lot of money is poured into the development of safety equipment and procedures. Even proper ventilation for workers sets factories back in cost. Last year, American Business noted some considerations that took place decades ago. They stated that, “If a company could replace the human spray-gun operators with robots, supervised by a single human operator in a ventilated booth overlooking the factory floor, the cost of the robots could quickly be recouped from what the company would save in reduced electricity bills, safety equipment costs, and workers’ wages.” And the companies have done just that. Robots don’t tire, they don’t require vacation time or insurance plans. It’s brilliant, right? Through the use of robots, consistent, perfected welds have been produced at higher speeds and lower costs. However, if you look closer, the cost that should be considered includes more than just capital. Each robot used replaces more than one experienced worker. The question now becomes, can America afford to allow robots to shoo this many people out of work?
It’s not just Americans that are affected. Just today, Focus Taiwan, a Taiwanese news channel, reported that a robot industrial park will be developed there this year. According to the article, Hon Hai, the company in question “has been working to promote automation to upgrade production efficiency.” The article also noted that the technology used in certain provinces is even more developed, “with even the final process — quality control — now automated.”
And while the fear of robot overlords may seem laughable and best left within the spines of comic books, there is something to be said for the notion; maybe not in such an extreme capacity, but at the very least a bit of concern for the livelihoods of workers. So far we’ve only addressed the automotive industry, but robots and their tech-cronies have and will continue to affect industries across the board. Focus Taiwan’s article also noted that OEM production lines for products like smartphones and tablets have also been automated. With increased usage of robots, plastics and other synthetic materials, it seems as though the world of welding is becoming smaller, or rather chipped into a series of niche markets run by various machines, be it fueled by man or arms of steel. The result of this “automation in the automotive nation” can have a great impact on the country; driving down car prices for a nation of people that can no longer afford them. But who knows where all of this technology could lead? Perhaps I really should go back to Tomorrowland in search of my dream. You know, the one with a flying car that’s been parked there illegally since 1992.