There continues to be much talk about the rise of automation and how the world of work will need to adapt to machines replacing jobs in the coming years. In reality, however, the age of robots is already upon us. Machines have been replacing humans on the production lines of cars and clothing for decades and the jobs in manufacturing have changed to reflect this.
Car manufacturers have long used robots in the production line in some form or other, with robot arms and special purpose machines central to the manufacturing process. Increasingly precise machines are directed and controlled by highly-skilled car plant workers, with the manufacturers producing ever more reliable vehicles. A modern Nissan car plant in Sunderland looks very different to the old British Leyland car plants of the 1970s, and the cars that come off the production line are in a different class. And in general, the more advanced Asian car manufacturer, the more reliable the car.
Much of the modern clothing industry still relies on low paid labour, often abroad. However, as machines continue the march of progress, clothing manufacturers are starting to see the value in bringing their production lines back to Europe or the US with low paid workers replaced by a smaller number of highly paid engineers and a production line of robots.
Sports brand Adidas, for example, has recently opened up a new high tech factory in Germany that will use a combination of 3D printing and a number of novel production techniques and bespoke assembly machines to produce its range of trainers. The trainer/sneaker industry is worth an estimated $80bn per year, and Adidas has made the calculation that it will be able to make better shoes for a lower price with fewer highly skilled engineers and a factory of machines than it can by outsourcing the work elsewhere.
The industrial revolution over two centuries ago started this path towards mechanisation and today’s machines are just the latest step in a long road. The rise of global trade saw manufacturing move abroad, but with modern machines some highly paid jobs should be coming back home.
Photograph by Michal Jarmoluk