The cobot controversy part 2

The new robots arrive, the humans remain

This post is a personal reflection about a statement of German Labor Union “IG Metall” posted on the union’s Website https://www.igmetall.de/robotik-tagung-2015-17975.htm titled “The new robots arrive, the humans remain(Published November 26th, 2015 and still online June 2017).

From the original article, in short

The article opens on this statement: “A new generation of lightweight robots comes into the factories. IG Metall sees more opportunities than threats. Provided that the human being plays the leading role in the cooperation with the new robots, IG Metall chairman Jörg Hofmann emphasized at the robotics conference in Berlin. The new robots come: smaller, lighter and closer to humans (collaborative robots, i.e. cobots). IG Metall wants to take advantage of the opportunities created by the increasing use of lightweight robots and new forms of cooperation between man and machine in industry.”

The tone is set. The union is not opposed to see increasingly installing robots near humans, neither the idea of collaboration between humans and cobots, provided the human keeps the upper hand.

The union recognizes the opportunities the robots bring in: reduction of human exposure to monotone or health-endangering work and creation of new, qualified activities. It mentions nothing about extending the employability of aging workers though, like other authors highlight as an additional benefit.

In order to develop a new kind of cooperation between man and machine, new forms of work have to be encouraged with expanded job profiles and possibilities for action for the employees. For this, other qualifications are certainly necessary than today” explained Hofmann on the occasion of the meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to prevent people from being marginalized in the “ballet of lightweight robots“.

Ballet, I assume, is to be understood here as the choreography of man and cobot working together. For example: the cobots grabs a part, moves and present it to the worker and while the cobot is holding it, the worker can work on it. Once the human cycle done, the cobot will take the part away and grab a new one for a new cycle.

“Under the assumption that the exploitation potentials of the new robot generation are actually exhausted and the human robot collaboration is co-designed by works councils and trade unions”.

I am not sure about the meaning of the “assumption” but it is clear that the union wants to have a say about the future human-robot collaboration.

The article goes on with a warning:  in future, manless factories are not an option. While the worker teaches the robot, literally guiding him by hand thanks to ease of use, makes it possible to give the employees a new role.

The use of the new robots also offers opportunities to improve competitiveness and secure employment,” says the IG Metall chairman. It is a matter of intelligently combining the use of people and machines, which means that labor costs are, in sum, lower, while qualification and ergonomics are at a higher level. Added value creation and employment can therefore remain in Germany.

Article analysis: understanding the vantage point

In order to fully get the (underlying) messages of the speech, some premises should be reminded:

  • Labor unions in Germany are reputed as consensus-driven as compared to the traditional French unions which are more hard-liners, opponents and politically-ideologically driven
  • The hype around robot, automation, big data, machine learning and so on is not likely to fade soon
  • The rise of the robot in manufacturing, in whatever shape and size they’ll come, is an accepted fact
  • Beyond a government supported program, Germany developed a brand: Industrie 4.0
  • If Germany would refrain developing and using robots, cobots, etc. for the sake of safekeeping human jobs, another competing nation would take advantage of it
  • The development of those technologies and Germany’s leadership is key to ensure a future for German high-tech manufacturing equipment makers
  • Labor unions are primarily seeking to protect and improve workers’ conditions and benefits
  • Labor union’s existence makes sense as long as there is (human) labor and the union’s power is a function of their members count
  • The speech was delivered during a meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics (not business)
  • The speech is a mixture of showing openness and ambition to play a key role in defining rules and use cases altogether. In order to maintain the union’s acceptance about robots, some (limiting) conditions must be accepted by the robots promoters / employers: the human workers keep the upper hand, should not be driven out (maneless factories) neither marginalized by automation.

It is suggested that all the automation frees the human worker from dangerous and mundane tasks, improves ergonomics (working conditions at large) and provides opportunities to enrich the job content and raise workers’ qualifications.

Beyond the stance, wishful thinking?

Let’s switch to investors’ and industrial engineers’ point of view. There is no point in systematically letting the humans have the upper hand when it comes to automation. It probably will not give an organization a competitive advantage nor systematically improve the process.

In some cases, unmanned factories are an option from the point of view of optimal investment and operations, so why should it be a taboo?

Why should investors and engineers agree to let the (probable) weakest link in the process (humans) have the upper hand? And why, if not because of threat, would they let works councils and trade unions co-design new processes?

Accepting those limitations while competition will probably not is accepting to join a race with self-inflicted handicaps.

It makes sense in politically correct parlance and for trying to avoid new luddites smashing the expensive new technology in anger.

Personal conclusion

My personal conclusion is that unions see the threat of losing their power as the number of workers will plummet, thanks to new technologies. On the other hand, fighting against new technology would endanger Germany’s leadership in the machine-tool and manufacturing equipment, right during the Industrie 4.0 hype.

Losing the leadership to foreign makers could also lead to lose jobs, hence weaken the unions’ importance.

Unions need to show their subscribers that they care to protect their interest in this uncertain working future and no one would benefit from a new luddites uprising.

I assume the German union goes the Realpolitik way and tries to find an acceptable compromise.

Comments welcome.

You may also like: The cobot controversy – part 1

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