[Marxism] The worker and the machine
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 19 11:47:01 MDT 2012
Marx, V. 1 of Capital, chapter 15:
Hence, between 1861 and 1868, 338 cotton factories disappeared, in other
words more productive machinery on a larger scale was concentrated in
the hands of a smaller number of capitalists. The number of power-looms
decreased by 20,663; but since their product increased in the same
period, an improved loom must have yielded more than an old one. Lastly
the number of spindles increased by 1,612,541, while the number of
operatives decreased by 50,505. The “temporary” misery inflicted on the
workpeople by the cotton-crisis, was heightened, and from being
temporary made permanent, by the rapid and persistent progress of machinery.
But machinery not only acts as a competitor who gets the better of the
workman, and is constantly on the point of making him superfluous. It is
also a power inimical to him, and as such capital proclaims it from the
roof tops and as such makes use of it. It is the most powerful weapon
for repressing strikes, those periodical revolts of the working-class
against the autocracy of capital. According to Gaskell, the
steam-engine was from the very first an antagonist of human power, an
antagonist that enabled the capitalist to tread under foot the growing
claims of the workmen, who threatened the newly born factory system with
a crisis. It would be possible to write quite a history of the
inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital
with weapons against the revolts of the working-class. At the head of
these in importance, stands the self-acting mule, because it opened up a
new epoch in the automatic system.
NY Times August 18, 2012
Skilled Work, Without the Worker
By JOHN MARKOFF
DRACHTEN, the Netherlands — At the Philips Electronics factory on the
coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized
tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.
At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the
same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through
feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.
One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires
and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms
work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the
people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a
coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.
All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a
tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.
This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now
commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing
workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution.
Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking
counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics
giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.
“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,”
said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips
assembly line in Drachten.
Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach
is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone
manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of
additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a
million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when.
But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of
robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he
said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human
beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”
The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off
a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly
jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee,
economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case
for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment
into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic
implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”
In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on
the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last
century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40
percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not
only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the
electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues.
“At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” asked Mike
Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer
electronics products that is based in Silicon Valley and is increasingly
automating assembly work. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very
close to that point.”
But Bran Ferren, a veteran roboticist and industrial product designer at
Applied Minds in Glendale, Calif., argues that there are still steep
obstacles that have made the dream of the universal assembly robot
elusive. “I had an early naïveté about universal robots that could just
do anything,” he said. “You have to have people around anyway. And
people are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in
or slip the hose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do.”
Beyond the technical challenges lies resistance from unionized workers
and communities worried about jobs. The ascension of robots may mean
fewer jobs are created in this country, even though rising labor and
transportation costs in Asia and fears of intellectual property theft
are now bringing some work back to the West.
Take the cavernous solar-panel factory run by Flextronics in Milpitas,
south of San Francisco. A large banner proudly proclaims “Bringing Jobs
& Manufacturing Back to California!” (Right now China makes a large
share of the solar panels used in this country and is automating its own
Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours
a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human
workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is
done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under
glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material,
threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame
for each panel.
Such advances in manufacturing are also beginning to transform other
sectors that employ millions of workers around the world. One is
distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest
sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more
efficiently than people. Robots could soon replace workers at companies
like C & S Wholesale Grocers, the nation’s largest grocery distributor,
which has already deployed robot technology.
Rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide
array of manual jobs within the abilities of robots. For example,
Boeing’s wide-body commercial jets are now riveted automatically by
giant machines that move rapidly and precisely over the skin of the
planes. Even with these machines, the company said it struggles to find
enough workers to make its new 787 aircraft. Rather, the machines offer
significant increases in precision and are safer for workers.
And at Earthbound Farms in California, four newly installed robot arms
with customized suction cups swiftly place clamshell containers of
organic lettuce into shipping boxes. The robots move far faster than the
people they replaced. Each robot replaces two to five workers at
Earthbound, according to John Dulchinos, an engineer who is the chief
executive at Adept Technology, a robot maker based in Pleasanton,
Calif., that developed Earthbound’s system.
Robot manufacturers in the United States say that in many applications,
robots are already more cost-effective than humans.
At an automation trade show last year in Chicago, Ron Potter, the
director of robotics technology at an Atlanta consulting firm called
Factory Automation Systems, offered attendees a spreadsheet to calculate
how quickly robots would pay for themselves.
In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000
and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over
the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in
labor and productivity savings.
The Obama administration says this technological shift presents a
historic opportunity for the nation to stay competitive. “The only way
we are going to maintain manufacturing in the U.S. is if we have higher
productivity,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office
of Science and Technology Policy.
Government officials and industry executives argue that even if
factories are automated, they still are a valuable source of jobs. If
the United States does not compete for advanced manufacturing in
industries like consumer electronics, it could lose product engineering
and design as well. Moreover, robotics executives argue that even though
blue-collar jobs will be lost, more efficient manufacturing will create
skilled jobs in designing, operating and servicing the assembly lines,
as well as significant numbers of other kinds of jobs in the communities
where factories are.
And robot makers point out that their industry itself creates jobs. A
report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics last
year found that 150,000 people are already employed by robotics
manufacturers worldwide in engineering and assembly jobs.
But American and European dominance in the next generation of
manufacturing is far from certain.
“What I see is that the Chinese are going to apply robots too,” said
Frans van Houten, Philips’s chief executive. “The window of opportunity
to bring manufacturing back is before that happens.”
A Faster Assembly Line
Royal Philips Electronics began making the first electric shavers in
1939 and set up the factory here in Drachten in 1950. But Mr. Visser,
the engineer who manages the assembly, takes pride in the sophistication
of the latest shavers. They sell for as much as $350 and, he says, are
more complex to make than smartphones.
The assembly line here is made up of dozens of glass cages housing
robots made by Adept Technology that snake around the factory floor for
more than 100 yards. Video cameras atop the cages guide the robot arms
almost unerringly to pick up the parts they assemble. The arms bend
wires with millimetric accuracy, set toothpick-thin spindles in tiny
holes, grab miniature plastic gears and set them in housings, and snap
pieces of plastic into place.
The next generation of robots for manufacturing will be more flexible
and easier to train.
Witness the factory of Tesla Motors, which recently began manufacturing
the Tesla S, a luxury sedan, in Fremont, Calif., on the edge of Silicon
More than half of the building is shuttered, called “the dark side.” It
still houses a dingy, unused Toyota Corolla assembly line on which an
army of workers once turned out half a million cars annually.
The Tesla assembly line is a stark contrast, brilliantly lighted. Its
fast-moving robots, bright Tesla red, each has a single arm with
multiple joints. Most of them are imposing, 8 to 10 feet tall, giving
them a slightly menacing “Terminator” quality.
But the arms seem eerily human when they reach over to a stand and
change their “hand” to perform a different task. While the many robots
in auto factories typically perform only one function, in the new Tesla
factory a robot might do up to four: welding, riveting, bonding and
installing a component.
As many as eight robots perform a ballet around each vehicle as it stops
at each station along the line for just five minutes. Ultimately as many
as 83 cars a day — roughly 20,000 are planned for the first year — will
be produced at the factory. When the company adds a sport utility
vehicle next year, it will be built on the same assembly line, once the
robots are reprogrammed.
Tesla’s factory is tiny but represents a significant bet on flexible
robots, one that could be a model for the industry. And others are
already thinking bigger.
Hyundai and Beijing Motors recently completed a mammoth factory outside
Beijing that can produce a million vehicles a year using more robots and
fewer people than the big factories of their competitors and with the
same flexibility as Tesla’s, said Paul Chau, an American venture
capitalist at WI Harper who toured the plant in June.
The New Warehouse
Traditional and futuristic systems working side by side in a
distribution center north of New York City show how robotics is
transforming the way products are distributed, threatening jobs. From
this warehouse in Newburgh, C & S, the nation’s largest grocery
wholesaler, supplies a major supermarket chain.
The old system sprawls across almost half a million square feet. The
shelves are loaded and unloaded around the clock by hundreds of people
driving pallet jacks and forklifts. At peak times in the evening, the
warehouse is a cacophony of beeping and darting electric vehicles as
workers with headsets are directed to cases of food by a computer that
speaks to them in four languages.
The new system is much smaller, squeezed into only 30,000 square feet at
the far end of the warehouse and controlled by just a handful of
technicians. They watch over a four-story cage with different levels
holding 168 “rover” robots the size of go-carts. Each can move at 25
miles an hour, nearly as fast as an Olympic sprinter.
Each rover is connected wirelessly to a central computer and on command
will race along an aisle until it reaches its destination — a case of
food to retrieve or the spot to drop one off for storage. The robot
gathers a box by extending two-foot-long metal fingers from its side and
sliding them underneath. It lifts the box and pulls it to its belly.
Then it accelerates to the front of the steel cage, where it turns into
a wide lane where it must contend with traffic — eight robots are active
on each level of the structure, which is 20 aisles wide and 21 levels high.
From the aisle, the robots wait their turn to pull into a special open
lane where they deposit each load into an elevator that sends a stream
of food cases down to a conveyor belt that leads to a large robot arm.
About 10 feet tall, the arm has the grace and dexterity of a skilled
supermarket bagger, twisting and turning each case so the final stack
forms an eight-foot cube. The software is sophisticated enough to
determine which robot should pick up which case first, so when the order
arrives at the supermarket, workers can take the cases out in the
precise order in which they are to go on the shelves.
When the arm is finished, the cube of goods is conveyed to a machine
that wraps it in clear plastic to hold it in place. Then a forklift
operator summoned by the computer moves the cube to a truck for shipment.
Built by Symbotic, a start-up company based in the Boston area, this
robotic warehouse is inspired by computer designers who created software
algorithms to efficiently organize data to be stored on a computer’s
Jim Baum, Symbotic’s chief executive, compares the new system to a huge
parallel computer. The design is efficient because there is no single
choke point; the cases of food moving through the robotic warehouse are
like the digital bits being processed by the computer.
Humans’ Changing Role
In the decade since he began working as a warehouseman in Tolleson,
Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, Josh Graves has seen how automation systems
can make work easier but also create new stress and insecurity. The
giant facility where he works distributes dry goods for Kroger supermarkets.
Mr. Graves, 29, went to work in the warehouse, where his father worked
for three decades, right out of high school. The demanding job required
lifting heavy boxes and the hours were long. “They would bring in 15
guys, and only one would last,” he said.
Today Mr. Graves drives a small forklift-like machine that stores and
retrieves cases of all sizes. Because such workers are doing less
physical labor, there are fewer injuries, said Rome Aloise, a Teamsters
vice president in Northern California. Because a computer sets the pace,
the stress is now more psychological.
Mr. Graves wears headsets and is instructed by a computerized voice on
where to go in the warehouse to gather or store products. A centralized
computer the workers call The Brain dictates their speed. Managers know
exactly what the workers do, to the precise minute.
Several years ago, Mr. Graves’s warehouse installed a German system that
automatically stores and retrieves cases of food. That led to the
elimination of 106 jobs, roughly 20 percent of the work force. The new
system was initially maintained by union workers with high seniority.
Then that job went to the German company, which hired nonunion workers.
Now Kroger plans to build a highly automated warehouse in Tolleson.
Sixty union workers went before the City Council last year to oppose the
plan, on which the city has not yet ruled.
“We don’t have a problem with the machines coming,” Mr. Graves told city
officials. “But tell Kroger we don’t want to lose these jobs in our city.”
Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs
that require workers to move in unpredictable settings and perform
different tasks that are not repetitive; assembly work that requires
tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats
or cars; and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are
made or where there are many versions of each product, requiring
expensive reprogramming of robots.
But that list is growing shorter.
Inside a spartan garage in an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto,
Calif., a robot armed with electronic “eyes” and a small scoop and
suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt.
It is doing what low-wage workers do every day around the world.
Older robots cannot do such work because computer vision systems were
costly and limited to carefully controlled environments where the
lighting was just right. But thanks to an inexpensive stereo camera and
software that lets the system see shapes with the same ease as humans,
this robot can quickly discern the irregular dimensions of randomly
The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft’s Kinect motion
sensing system for its Xbox video game system.
Such robots will put automation within range of companies like Federal
Express and United Parcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of
workers doing such tasks.
The start-up behind the robot, Industrial Perception Inc., is the first
spinoff of Willow Garage, an ambitious robotics research firm based in
Menlo Park, Calif. The first customer is likely to be a company that now
employs thousands of workers to load and unload its trucks. The workers
can move one box every six seconds on average. But each box can weigh
more than 130 pounds, so the workers tire easily and sometimes hurt
Industrial Perception will win its contract if its machine can reliably
move one box every four seconds. The engineers are confident that the
robot will soon do much better than that, picking up and setting down
one box per second.
“We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and
distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a
founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an
event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”
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