The excellent NYTimes article linked below outlines how robotics is bringing manufacturing back from overseas, but without repatriating the jobs we traditionally associate with factories.
While most of this is very positive in terms of the general economic impact, especially on domestic economies, it marks a dramatic shift in perspective - especially when it comes to the perceived value of workers. For example, when referencing Foxconn chairman Terry Gou:
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.”
Needless to say, it's also become a key issue in the current Presidential election campaign, or at least a political football that both sides want to grab and run with.
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.
All that being said, it's a given that manufacturing jobs will be drastically eliminated in the same way that most agricultural jobs went the way of the Dodo bird during our grandparents generation. The critical question, the question that everyone seems to be ignoring, is what will most of the people in the population do to create meaningful value that others are willing to pay for.
According to a report in Monday's Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Canon, the world's leader in digital cameras with a 20% marketshare, is building two automated plants in Oita Prefecture that are expected to be fully online by 2015.
The first plant, in Utsunomiya City, will fully automate the camera assembly process using robotics eliminating the need for human workers as much as possible. The second plant, in Kunisaki is expected to implement similar advances in Canon interchangeable lens production.
Canon has placed a priority on increasing efficiency and decreasing the human assembly component since 1990. Recent market and environmental changes, including the impact of the March 2010 earthquake and tsunami, difficult foreign currency exchange rates, flooding in Thailand, and the expected challenges with manufacturing in China going forward, seem to have accelerated Canon's initiative to strengthen its manufacturing base in Japan.
Moving production back from overseas factories to domestic doesn't directly correlate to job creation or transfer. Canon has been silent on the exact job impact of their new facilities, however it appears that manufacturing employees associated with Canon camera and accessory production in Oita Prefecture have decreased by half over the past three years.
Via: Nihon Keizai Shinbun