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Engineering Materials
Self-Assembled Devices May Transform Manufacturing
4/3/2013

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The 3D brick approach to self-assembly at the nanoscale is based on short synthetic strands of DNA that form building blocks, which self-assemble into 100 different, precise 3D shapes such as letters and numbers. Like the models of 80 of these shapes shown here, each unique shape measures about 25 nm per side.
The 3D brick approach to self-assembly at the nanoscale is based on short synthetic strands of DNA that form building blocks, which self-assemble into 100 different, precise 3D shapes such as letters and numbers. Like the models of 80 of these shapes shown here, each unique shape measures about 25 nm per side.

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Rob Spiegel
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A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/3/2013 9:42:42 AM
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Good story Ann,

 

When it comes to assembly and manufacturing, robots may replace labor from China. How ironic if robots become an alternative to cheap labor.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/3/2013 1:06:39 PM
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Thanks, Rob. Yes, it's already starting to look like robots are replacing cheap labor again, even in China. It's been reported that Foxconn plans to "solve" it's widely publicized labor problems by replacing humans with millions of robots: http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robots/foxconn-to-replace-human-workers-with-one-million-robots

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/3/2013 1:39:58 PM
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In the past, there has been the myth that robots create more jobs (in robot design and manufacturing systems design) than they replace. But it's simple economics -- if robots create more jobs than they replace they would not be economically feasible -- and apparently they are economically feasible.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/3/2013 2:04:45 PM
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Rob, I agree--in fact, it's simple arithmetic. I'm getting a little tired of hearing about all the supposed new jobs that will be created instead of all the jobs that will, obviously, in fact be taken away. What's also ignored in those arguments is--what happens to all the people whose jobs are taken away? And what happens to all the people trained for, and dependent on, that shrinking pool of good blue collar jobs?

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/3/2013 3:58:18 PM
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In the early years of computers, the computers did indeed create more jobs than they eliminated. That was partly due to poor implementation and apps that were not well designed for labor savings. That, of course, changed in time.

With robots, I wouldn't expect that delay. I would imagine the apps are available as the robots are created. So the labor savings would be immediate.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/4/2013 12:04:01 PM
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Rob, I think those are good, and accurate, observations about the differences between automation in the past and robots now. Robots are, in one sense, Factory Automation 2.0. The industry has already gone through all the 101/1.0 pain--poor implementation and poorly designed apps, since it was all new--and learned a lot of lessons. Plus. there are many, many companies who would like to replace human workers with robots.



Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/5/2013 10:23:23 AM
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Yes, Ann, and it will be interesting to see the future of robots. Apparently they are paying for themselves, since implementations dont get very far in factory automation without a clear ROI. It will be interesting to see who implements the new wave of robots. I'll put my money on the suppliers in auto and aerospace.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/5/2013 12:05:07 PM
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Rob, I think you're right about those two apps. Meanwhile, though, people in machine vision and other industries have told me, off record, they wish they had robots, not humans, working in their factories.



Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/8/2013 1:08:02 PM
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Interesting, Ann. Why are they talking off the record? And why do they prefer robots over humans?

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/8/2013 2:43:21 PM
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Rob, they're talking off the record because of what they're saying about their desire to use robots instead of humans: no sick time, no vacations, no unions, no strikes, no pay increases.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/9/2013 10:48:11 PM
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Interesting, Ann. I have mixed feeling about this. I hate to see the human jobs get displaced, but to do otherwise -- keep humans when robot ROI is superior -- would be subsidizing human labor at the expense of shareholders. How long can a CEO do that before the analyst community asks for his or her head?

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/11/2013 1:10:38 PM
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Rob, I disagree with that argument. For one thing, it assumes the company operates in a social, cultural and economic vacuum. Since when does superior ROI always trump everything else? Since MBAs started running US companies. I think this is a larger cultural issue. Social responsibility has become a big deal, inside and outside corporations. For instance, I've been learning about socially responsible investing and have shifted most of mine toward companies that value other things in addition to ROI.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/12/2013 1:26:40 PM
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I'm glad to hear your view of social value, Ann. Me too. But the acid test will be whether that message gets to the analyst community. So far, companies have been rewarded for sending production to China and moving their headquarters to the Caribbean. Until CEOs are rewarded for instilling social values, they will continue to be bottom line creatures.

There are some promising developments. TI and many other companies are building factories at home again. They're still arguing the moves from a bottom-line perspective, however.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/12/2013 1:42:02 PM
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1 saves
I think it's not surprising that ROI trumps everything else, but I also think it's not necessary. However, I think it's the shareholders, not the analysts, who make a difference. True, many shareholders simply follow the analysts' advice. So you've got a good point there. But it's also true that shareholders, especially ones with a lot of money, have made it possible for these alternative sustainable funds to come into being and proliferate. As a shareholder (via some mutual funds), I voted with my feet, so to speak. The more people who do that, the more responsible CEOs and their companies will be rewarded for social and environmental responsibility.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/15/2013 3:34:02 PM
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Good point, Ann. There may be a generational aspect to this as well. I've noticed over the past 10 years that many large companies have serious initiatives to be good citizens -- from green fiendly to lifestyle friendly. These efforts seem to be mostly coming from young executives who grew up hearing about the importance of a healthy environment and social responsibility. I think this upcoming (and sometimes in place) generation may help the corporate vision look beyond the next quarter. If so, that vision will need to be communicated well at the company's highest levels to combat the knee-jerk reactions from the analyst community. I think this is already happening at companies such as Texas Instruments.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/16/2013 12:07:03 PM
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Rob, I think you may be right about the generational aspect. Although it's also true that any company doing its duty as a corporate citizen publicizes its good deeds, and sustainability sells. I don't see anything wrong with all that. But that doesn't imply that a company is only being sustainable for PR purposes, which some commenters have implied in past discussions about green anything. Some companies, such as DuPont, have places sustainability at the core of their corporate values.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/17/2013 11:45:00 AM
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Yes, I agree, Ann, that many companies are now serious about sustainability. While this movement in corporate culture may have originated in the PR discipline, many companies now have sustainability executives whose mission is more than just an effort to give their company a public facelift. It's good to see.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/23/2013 12:33:00 PM
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I agree, Rob--it's wonderful to see sustainability efforts become an integral part of corporations.

Dave Palmer
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Dave Palmer   4/3/2013 5:09:00 PM
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@Rob: The problem with your "simple economics" argument ("if robots create more jobs than they replace they would not be economically feasible") is that economics is not a zero-sum game.  Higher productivity creates economic growth, which creates jobs.

Companies don't make money by eliminating jobs, they make money by selling products.  If automation allows a company to make products at a lower cost, they can sell more products.  If they sell more products, they will make more money.  If the company makes more money, they will have more money to invest -- including in new employees.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/3/2013 5:33:37 PM
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Hey, Dave,

 

Good points. However, the additional profits may not go to more jobs. It may go to more robots.

GTOlover
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Re: A challenge to China labor
GTOlover   4/4/2013 12:09:38 PM
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I would add that the company is not a closed economic system. Those new jobs are usually a higher skill set than the workers displaced by the robots (maintenance, engineering, and programmers). Some companies 'invest' in re-training, others hire replacements that either paid for their own skills upgrade or got the taxpayer to pick up the tab. The point being, job growth of a company upgrading productivity by automation does displace lower skilled labor but enhances job growth for higher skilled workers.

So in a sense, Ann is correct that blue collar workforce is endangered by robots. If China loses work to robots, what will the billions of workers do?

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/4/2013 8:07:03 PM
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Thanks, GTOlover. That's the point I was trying to make: what happens when low-skilled jobs are replaced by higher-skilled jobs? This sounds great--until you wonder what happens to the displaced workers. Once upon a time, there were a lot more low-skilled workers than high-skilled ones. I'd like to know what the proportions are today, in the US and elsewhere. The raw numbers in China must be huge.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Cabe Atwell   4/5/2013 2:19:13 AM
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As fantastic as this is, I would like to see this tech integrated into robotic toys. True "transformers," a childhood dream is almost fulfilled.

C

Rob Spiegel
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Rob Spiegel   4/5/2013 10:27:35 AM
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Hey GTOlover,

If the robots are to coninue their expansion, it will be at the cost of blue collar jobs. That's the ROI. The addition of smart jobs must be small in comparison to the elimination of worker jobs or the robots will not offer value. Look out China.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: A challenge to China labor
Ann R. Thryft   4/5/2013 12:04:23 PM
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Companies rarely invest in more workers when they make more profits--that would generally be seen as anti-productive, since the productivity metric is usually how many dollars are brought in per worker. Unless, of course, they've decided to expand operations that need more workers. And obviously this all depends on what kind of jobs and workers we mean. But many, many companies don't want more or any human workers: they want robot workers, automated hardware, and increasingly sophisticated software. Which makes me wonder how many engineering jobs have been lost to design software--anyone know?

Ann R. Thryft
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The future is going to be very different
Ann R. Thryft   4/3/2013 1:29:24 PM
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Because all of this work is still in R&D it might be easy to dismiss it as blue-sky. But I discovered while doing the background research for this article that many of these projects have been underway for several years, and much of what's being done now is second- or even third-generation R&D. There's an awful lot of brains and money aimed at developing self-assembling. self-reconfiguring robots. I came away with the feeling that the future is going to be very different, indeed.

Charles Murray
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Re: The future is going to be very different
Charles Murray   4/3/2013 4:33:47 PM
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Ann, this technology seems to reflect what we've already seen in numerous sci-fi books and movies. There are many examples, but one that jumps to mind is Terminator 2, where the terminator robot re-assembles itself after getting shot.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: The future is going to be very different
Ann R. Thryft   4/3/2013 5:28:31 PM
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Chuck, I had the same hit about Terminator 2. There's also the Transformers, and I did a news story on a very expensive, very sophisticated, 'toy" version
http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=256018

apresher
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Transformed Manufacturing
apresher   4/3/2013 2:37:13 PM
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For this approach to gain traction, there may be a need for a killer app or specific market for these modular, self-reconfiguring robots to prove themselves in.  OEM machines are often very niche oriented (relatively low number of new machines per year and a huge installed base developed over a much longer period).  Makes it difficult for new approaches to break in.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Transformed Manufacturing
Ann R. Thryft   4/3/2013 5:23:57 PM
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Al, the main apps I've heard of mentioned more than once are consumer, like reconfigurable furniture, or reconfigurable robots for space exploration and search and rescue. That's the macro-level tehcnmologies. For the nano and micro-Ievel it's usually various medical uses such as drug delivery mechanisms.



apresher
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Self-Assembled Devices
apresher   4/3/2013 5:33:12 PM
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Ann,  Thanks for the information on markets they are targeting. Those consumer applications make more sense than other more established uses.

apresher
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Self-Assembled Devices
apresher   4/3/2013 5:33:13 PM
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Ann,  Thanks for the information on markets they are targeting. Those consumer applications make more sense than other more established uses.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Self-Assembled Devices
Ann R. Thryft   4/4/2013 12:04:40 PM
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Al, I think you're right about the consumer apps, at least in the  beginning. But these technologies will be capable of making--and re-making!--a lot of other stuff. I know it's hard to imagine--I felt like my brain went through a painful re-orientation during the reporting of this article--but I really think it's possible, even likely.



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