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OM in the News: Skilled Work Without the Worker (with Video)

August 20, 2012

Robotics is just one  topic in our treatment of  technology in Chapter 7, but yesterday’s lead article in the New York Times (Aug. 19, 2012) called “Skilled Work Without the Worker” is worth sharing with your class. The point is that robots have become a lot more sophisticated in the past 2 decades and are now capable of doing very detailed work that only humans could do just a short time ago.

Tesla foctory robots perform not one, but 4 functions at the California auto plant

The piece begins by describing two Philips Electronics factories–one in China (where hundreds of workers hand assemble electric shavers)– and the other in Holland (where 128 robots  do the same work, guided by video cameras). The Dutch factory  has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in China. And the robots there work, of course, without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.

This is the future, says The Times. A new wave of robots is replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one  in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Foxconn , which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers to make Apple products. Foxconn’s chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he recently said: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

With examples ranging from Boeing’s use of robots on the 787,  to C&S Wholesale Grocers fully automated warehouse, to a California organic farmer who uses them to pack lettuce, this exciting OM technology makes for a good discussion in many chapters of our text. The 4 minute video that accompanies the article is also well done.

Discussion questions:

1. Why have robots become a more powerful force in recent years?

2. What are the plusses and minuses of the new revolution?

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