It seems logical to suppose that robotics eliminates jobs. Robots have certainly sent thousands of auto workers packing. Yet, the robotics industry is apparently creating thousands of jobs to support the development and production of robots. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) commissioned a study by Metra Martech to ascertain just how many jobs the robot industry has actually created, while also offering a peek into future job creation in the robotics industry.
The study, "Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment," claims that by 2016, the robot industry will add another 1 million jobs worldwide. That would come in addition to the 8 million to 10 million jobs that Metra Martech estimates have already been created by the robotics industry.
The jobs fall into a number of industries, from consumer electronics to food, solar, and advanced battery manufacturing. The study also questions whether robotics has cut deeply into the manufacturing employment population. The report noted that between 2000 and 2008, manufacturing employment increased in nearly every major industrialized country, even as robotics increased sharply.
There is certainly no doubt robots eliminate factory jobs. The question the study prompts is whether there is a net job loss due to robotics or simply a displacement of jobs from repetitive blue-collar work to technical jobs.
The report's author, Peter Gorle, noted that robots are being used to carry out work that would not be economically viable in a high-wage economy, thus allowing the manufacturing to remain in the high-wage country. He also pointed to robot use that has nothing to do with job displacement, specifically the use of robots for tasks that are unsafe for humans or tasks that would simply be impossible for humans.
While the United States, Japan, and Germany have led in the adoption of robotics in manufacturing, emerging countries are beginning to deploy robots as well, particularly China and Brazil.
Robots for quality, not job elimination
Part of the growth in robot jobs comes from the expanded tasks that are getting shifted to robots. "In former times, robots were primarily used in order to replace workers and save costs. This has changed," Gudrun Litzenberger, general secretary of the IFR, told Design News. "The manufacturing industry all over the world is forced to improve their production processes. Robots are being used to accomplish this." He notes that the reasons to use robots have simply diversified.
Because of the diversification and the success of robots in industries such as automotive, there has been a surge in the deployment of robots. "The number of industrial robots in operation will increase from 1 million in 2010 to 1.3 million in 2014," says Litzenberger.
While automotive has led the development of robotics in manufacturing, robot applications are diversifying into new industries. "The high volume of industrial robots will continue to come from the automotive industry," Litzenberger notes. "The establishment of electro mobility, new materials such as carbon composites, and modernization of production processes will be the main drivers for investment."
Another industry that has lately turned to robots for manufacturing is electronics. "The electrical and electronics industry will continue to invest in capacity and modernization. The trend towards more energy-efficient products, increasing consumer markets for electronic products, and new production technologies will further boost robot installations."
Litzenberger points to other industries where the use of robotics is gaining momentum, including rubber and plastics, metal and machinery, pharmaceuticals, and food and beverage. So, while robots are certainly trimming repetitive manufacturing jobs, the robotics industry continues to add jobs at an aggressive rate.