Meet Your New Coworker
Industrial robots are reshaping manufacturing
It would be tough to find a company seemingly more evocative of 20th-century, "old economy" America than Allied-Locke Industries. The family-owned-and-run manufacturing firm is headquartered about 100 miles due west of Chicago in rural Dixon, Ill.--the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan. It sits right there on Corregidor Road, named after the Philippines island fortress where outnumbered American forces fiercely resisted the invading Japanese in the early months of World War II.
No one walking onto Allied-Locke's low-light, high-decibel factory floor is going to mistake the place for the clean room at a semiconductor manufacturing plant. Allied's operations appear about as unglamorous and low tech as one might expect at a maker of chains and sprockets--except, that is, for a smattering of robots.
Although the pervasive grease and grime make these computerized machines with their articulated arms look like they originally came with the place, the robots--all adorned with user-friendly female names like "Heidi"--are relative newcomers at the 300-employee firm. About four years ago, the company picked up four used robots (they formerly resided in a now shuttered Caterpillar plant) to assist in the heated hardening of pins that help form the links in its chains.
"The machinery dealer wanted something like $60,000 or $70,000 for them, but we haggled them down to $40,000," says Jeff Shoemaker, an industrial engineer who heads four divisions at the firm. "That still may seem like a lot, but with the rising cost of health insurance for our employees, the cost of a robot is pretty easily justified."
Those four robots--along with seven more purchased since then for various tasks such as welding and loading--have allowed Allied-Locke to get more production out of the same number of workers. And that has helped it avoid new hiring. That sort of situation represents the other face of the well-publicized issue of America's declining manufacturing employment. If American workers aren't losing jobs making Nike sneakers to Vietnamese workers, then they are losing out to machines as companies look to increase productivity. "The state of manufacturing in the United States in terms of production is just fine," says Tapan Munroe, chief economist for the Capital Corp of the West. "But thanks to automation, we need fewer workers to make the same product."
As the saying goes in manufacturing, "automate or evaporate." And robots represent the cutting edge of automation technology in the United States. While Japan is often thought of as most adept at the use of robots, America is now a top market for them. In 2003, North American manufacturing companies shelled out $877 million for robots--up 19 percent over 2002, and the industry's best mark since 2000. "It's encouraging to see the robotics industry approaching the figures we hit prior to the double whammy of the economic slowdown of 2001-2002 and the impact of 9/11," says Donald Vincent, executive vice president of the Robotic Industries Association.
Materials handling (moving stuff around factories) remains the largest application for robots, followed by spot welding. The automotive industry is still the biggest robot user, ordering nearly two thirds of robots last year. But when they were first introduced in the early 1960s, "they were good for the three `D' kinds of jobs," says Steve Holland, chief scientist for manufacturing at GM. "Jobs that were dirty, difficult, and dangerous."