The following insight is from Forbes.
For several years, at a commercial site north of Indianapolis, there were scenes of “chickens running around with their heads cut off,” as one worker put it. No, this was not one of the Hoosier state’s 800-plus poultry farms, but rather a plastic-components making plant in Noblesville, Indiana.
The most frantic flailing-about, figuratively, at the Metro Plastics Technologies factory was associated with the daily forklift gauntlet run by the plant’s pair of material handlers who were constantly darting to and from the plant’s 25 molding presses.
Likewise, quality control personnel found themselves bordering on a panicked state trying to keep up with invariable in-the-weeds moments inherent in the “it’ll be done when it’s done” production cycles of diverse, detail-oriented, custom-molded parts making.
“It seemed almost sacrilegious to even think this way, being here in the heartland, but we wanted more automation,” said Ken Hahn, president of Metro Plastics which traces its origins back to the mid-1970s. Today, the company employs 125 people and, as of last year, one autonomous mobile robot.
Somewhat akin to a self-driving airline beverage cart, the MiR200 is the product of Denmark’s Mobile Industrial Robots. MiR is owned by Teradyne in North Reading, Massachusetts.
The autonomous cart, programed to know its way around every square inch of the 72,000-square foot factory, makes regular rounds, on a loop, stopping at production lines to pick parts up, and at inspection stations to drop them off. Over the past nine months, the robot has logged 200 methodical miles.
Aware of the stigma associated with automation but not wanting to be stranded in the past, Hahn pushed ahead with a mobile robot solution to his uniquely amorphous production line challenges because it made the most sense, even with staff blowback taken into consideration.
Metro Plastics did replace some hourly positions with the robot, which cost under $50,000, Hahn said. But the company also added a full-time (better paying) automation position; material handlers, meanwhile, “can now focus on the process,” he added. On a bigger-picture basis, Metro Plastics is a story of impressive growth, and of the dynamic nature of global supply chains. But our story is about automation.
“Not only were workers not put off by the robot, but, to the contrary, it has become a source of pride,” Hahn said. “It’s gotten to where some of our employees have brought their kids and spouses into work just to show them. It’s improved morale.”
The downside of rising automation – its potential to roil the livelihoods of millions of working-class people – has been receiving more attention so far in 2019, from think tank reports warning of potential job losses to humorous segments on cable television decrying robo-indignities.
That factory floor morale might be improved by automation shouldn’t seem like an outlier, considering some of the types of soul-devouring assembly line tediousness now being mitigated via robotics. And yet, arguably, the opposite sentiment has begun to bubble up, and the divisiveness surrounding robotics in manufacturing is likely to keep simmering as a societal issue. Recently, there were attention-grabbing episodes at Amazon fulfillment centers in Europe last fall when stressed-out workers threatened to strike, with some of them chanting “we are not robots.” Many of Amazon’s global transshipment hubs rely on mobile robots to move large vertical racks of inventory.
Certainly it’s not hard to envision a scenario where a worker is made to feel discouraged when the reference point for measuring their performance is a sole-purpose machine.
New research supports this concept. A joint team of scholars from Cornell University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem just published the results of an experiment to measure what happens, motivationally speaking, to people when they competed with a robot at a simple task. In this case, we’re talking about 600 banal rounds of a little game called “count the letter G” (found in a string of 20 randomly generated characters). The subjects were told that their chances of winning a prize would be determined by performance differentials, theirs versus the robot’s.
“We found that they tried harder when they found out that the robot was slower, and vice versa,” so that as the robot performed better, humans’ performance levels ebbed, explained Ori Heffetz, who teaches economics at both Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is one of five co-authors of the study, “Monetary-Incentive Competition Between Humans and Robots: Experimental Results.”
Heffetz teaming up with co-author Guy Hoffman, a Cornell engineering professor, brought two separate disciplines together but also two old friends who had long discussed some form of research collaboration. They first met in the Israeli army in early 1990s. Both of them began to notice several years ago that A.I. was an underappreciated topic that needed to be more prominently discussed, not only within the fields of economics and engineering but for society at large. The two professors had help from three graduate student authors on this project: Alap Kshirsagar (Cornell University), as well as Bnaya Dreyfuss and Guy Ishai (both from Hebrew University of Jerusalem).
Hoffman mildly objected to the suggestion that the research found robots had a demoralizing effect on humans when side by side doing tasks.
“What I can say is that we found a small discouragement effect,” said Hoffman, who has been fascinated by automation and related sociological issues ever since his first encounter, about one decade ago, with self-check-out stations at an all-night food mart – and the sheepish employee who was allowed to turn the machines off in order to preserve his job.
To be clear: it’s one experiment, a conversation starter, the authors concede, not the final verdict on robotics’ potential to erode self-esteem.
Still, interestingly, when researchers “dialed up” the speed at which the robot could count the Gs, it resulted in reduced performance levels in human subjects.
“This is predicted by established theory based on people’s expectation to win,” Hoffman explained. “We do not know, nor claim to know, the psychological reasons for this effect, and so I would not say that people were demoralized, saddened, or made angry by the robot.
“But what we did see,” he said, “is that the better the robot performed, the less people liked it.”
Anecdotally, there’s evidence that robotics and automation in general will have more opportunities to boost, not harm, workplace morale, based on the demand for those willing to do manual labor. The following back-of-the-envelope estimate was made by a senior sales executive at an East Coast maker of packaging machinery, some of it autonomous.
“There are about 30 plants that I interact with in a given year,” explained the executive, requesting anonymity, i.e. not wanting to risk possibly putting off his clients. “So I would say almost all of them could be described as having some automation or becoming more automated. And, at the same time, most of them are still in hiring mode as we speak and are not able to find enough good people.”
Workers are being reassigned not replaced. As far as any robot-related demoralization, it’s not evident, the equipment supplier insisted, adding, admittedly speculatively, that probably in 8 out of 10 examples automation improved morale.
Another day there’s a story to be written on what, exactly, is propelling Metro Plastics forward so fast these days (“answering the phone and not profiting off of our customers mistakes,” said Hahn, connecting success with in-stone companywide commitments such as those). So yes they looked around and saw a no-brainer opportunity to put a robot into the mix. That is noteworthy. But it’s one component of a larger mosaic.
Take a step back, and a clearer picture emerges, that of technology being used both economically, and humanely.
Big Poultry recognized many years ago that having chickens running around with their heads cut off was no way to run a slaughterhouse. Society keeps demanding better. Animal welfare concerns do show up in business decisions.
Purdue, for example, last month, announced it spent $20 million to develop a less cruel way of carting chickens away to their deaths.
As it turns out, decreasing human-animal interactions are key to minimizing abuse. In this new system, instead of being handled by humans, Perdue’s chickens will be taken from barns to slaughter – by machines.
Read the full article in Forbes.