Industrial robots and the labour market

Louise Smyth

Should we be concerned? Molly Connell explores how industrial robots will shape the labour market

Just like the first industrial revolution in the 18th century, Industry 4.0 is bringing along major changes. There is a reason why it is one of the most discussed topics nowadays. The current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies has and will have consequences that are highly debated.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, between and 2010 and 2015 the growth of industrial robots was 98% and currently there are 1.8 million robots in operation. Following this trend they estimate this number to increase to 2.6 million.

The decrease of robot prices and the technical development made investing in robots more remunerative. As an example, Boston-based Rethink Robotics already offers one of its factory robots, Baxter for as little as US$25,000. Financially this equals paying a full-time human worker US$4 an hour over the life of the machine. This is a huge saving compared to having to pay a human spot welder US$25 per hour. Robots used in electronics manufacturing currently cost less that one-half the federal minimum wage of US$7.25 per hour. Also they can be applied in more fields than ever before.

For business owners, installing robots or 'cobots' (collaborative robots) has another upside as well: these machines will never go on a strike, be sick or even ask for a pay raise. Exactly these advantages are what makes experts worried. We can hear news like “Robots will eliminate 6% of US jobs by 2021” which examine the social consequences or Industry 4.0. Are our jobs really in danger?

It’s not that simple. So far there is no relationship proven between a country’s use of robots and the number of manufacturing jobs lost. The explanation behind that is that robots are not going to diminish the labour market but reshape it. There’s an 83% chance that automation will take a job with an hourly wage below US$20, but new, better-paying jobs will be created. Manufacturers may see robotics technology as generating new high-skilled jobs.

The subject is very complex and there are many factors to take in consideration. If you would like to know more about the subject, take a look at TradeMachines’ new infographic here. The statistics available at the moment are the only guidelines experts can follow to forecast, but it seems like there is nothing to be afraid of. Robots might take some jobs, but looking at the whole picture, that’s OK.

Molly Connell is with TradeMachines   

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