The cobot controversy – Part 1

“The cobot controversy” is the title of a short article published by and on the Hannover Messe (“Hannover Fair”, the industry exhibition) website.

The article can be read in English as well as in German (assumed original version). This article proposes a “balanced” view about the impact of the collaborative robots (cobots) on the jobs in industry.

It caught my interest because most often the articles on those subjects, i.e. robots and future of jobs are single-sided.

  • On the one hand promoters of the factory of the future, industry 4.0 and robotics only highlight the alleged benefits of the new technologies.
  • On the other hands, prophets of doom predict nothing else than mass extinction of jobs.

Published by what can be considered the Mecca of Germany’s Industrie 4.0, the showplace of the most recent and finest developments in cyber physical systems, automation and more, it is fair (no pun intended…) to present the flip side of the coin.

Furthermore, some references to studies cited in the article are interesting. For instance the fact that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”. Digging deeper into this one, I read that usually analysts assume that the whole job is taken over by automation or robots when in fact only specific tasks are. This is mainly because the analysts remained on a macro level.

Now, can this invalidate the initial assumption: robots won’t replace humans at work?

When observing any person in its daily work, many of the tasks done are not described in the work instructions neither in the procedures and many tasks are not even part of the job description.

This can have several reasons:

  • people not sticking to the work instructions and taking liberties
  • reacting to unexpected situations that require decision and action on the spot
  • impossibility to describe every possible situation in work instructions and procedures
  • broad guidelines as instructions, relying on human know-how to carry out the tasks
  • etc.

The human workers defenders will argue that humans are irreplaceable when facing an unexpected situation, something that is likely to happen (very) frequently. They may be right, but with regards to old automation constraints and algorithm programming.

Until relatively recently, automation required accurate positioning and low variability for automated machines or robots to operate. Programming was linear and only capable to adjust on programmed variations. With the all the progress in various fields, objects positioning is no longer a hard constraint and systems are increasingly capable to adjust to unexpected situations.

Machines, in the broadest meaning of the word, are also increasingly capable to learn and adapt. Therefore, the assumption of the irreplaceable human is losing its validity as the machines’ abilities improve.

When observing humans work, is it also common to see them take deliberate liberties with the list of tasks, because of their inability to keep focused over time, because they are convinced to know better or because they lack the self-discipline to stick to instructions.

Humans introduce many variations and not always for good reasons, therefore praising the vast variety of tasks the human do must be considered with care. For the same reason, stating that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”, based on such observations without a critical discrimination of the necessity and added-value of the human tasks, might be wrong.

Why? When going for automation, the engineers will analyze the process and concentrate on the core activities. They may well ignore many special issues a human will take care of, but also ignore all the unnecessary or deviant activities human will add. More or less, this analysis will discriminate necessary from unnecessary tasks, value-added from waste.

Comments welcome.

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What jobs in the factory of the future? Part5

Not as Many Jobs, But Jobs

Contrasting with my pessimistic analysis about jobs in the factory of future, Hal Sirkin, a senior partner with The Boston Consulting Group, would see the positive side of the half full glass in his article published on

The author discusses the possibility of Foxconn, the enormous Asian gadget manufacturer, to open factories to the U.S.

These US based factories would serve both tech company clients and the consumers who buy the gadgets they assemble, where they live. Cost differences being levelled by rising wages in China, the availability of advanced technology (automation, robotics) and an educated workforce to run it.

Sirkin warns “These Foxconn factories won’t be like the auto plants of the 1950s, that bygone era politicians so often invoke when promising the revival of U.S. manufacturing. Most of the jobs in these factories likely will require more than a high school diploma, and there won’t be as many of them to be had. (../..) Not as Many Jobs, But Jobs”.

 What jobs in the factory of the future? >Part1 >Part2 >Part3 >Part4

Bandeau_Lego2Chris HOHMANN

What jobs in the factory of the future? Part4

It doesn’t take very keen analytic abilities to foretell the most likely future of jobs in industry. Common sense of the man on the street is enough.

Industry in US and Western Europe has paid a high price to the appealing cheaper manufacturing in low-cost countries. The customers were delighted with cheaper prices, even at the expense of product quality and of the homeland jobs.

Now that these low-cost products don’t come so cheap anymore and the unemployment rate of youngest and eldest population is a real burden as well as a societal problem (case of France), the promises of a new industrial era favored by smart automation and IT are welcome.

Politicians promote the factories of the future and the industrial jobs, smartly avoiding being specific about their number and the required qualifications.

The man on the street is clever enough to grasp unspoken reality: highly automated factories won’t require much manpower. Automation always replaced human labor.

For those believing in worker friendly cobots >Read my post about collaborative robots

The remaining required workforce will have to interact with technology, made as easy as managing one’s favorite social media, which favors the digital natives. At least good news for the youngest generations.

For outcast elder manpower perspectives don’t look bright. They won’t sell their experience, most of which is no longer required in the highly automated future. Radical change is tougher for those past 45 or 50. It’s not easy to start learning a new job, compete with younger folks and voluntarily reduce living standard.

I witnessed the failure of trying to convert a handful of 50-year-old print shop workers into telemarketers. I am pessimistic about converting millions of outdated senior professionals in anything new. And so does my fellow-man on the street.

 What jobs in the factory of the future? >Part1 >Part2 >Part3   >>Part5