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Industrial robots, particularly those in the automotive industry, complement human workers rather than replace them, according to a recent study published by Yong Suk Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, and his co-author John Chung of Auburn University.
The study found that advanced digitization and automation within the automotive industry have likely increased labor productivity and created new tasks, requiring the hiring of more employees. However, there were some cases where robot technology may have supplemented the workforce by filling in gaps left vacant when employees quit or moved on to other positions.
Suk Lee and Chung examined the influence of robots on the US labor market between 2005-2016. The team analyzed the data in five-year intervals to see how automation changed the labor market. They found that for the first five years, robots did have a negative impact on the number of human employees and their local wagers, but this impact rebounded and turned positive in more recent years, beginning around 2010.
The researchers tracked the reversal and determined its source by comparing data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). The data they found showed that productivity increases could be tied to three factors:
- The automation of tasks and a reduction in production costs
- The improvement of robot technology performing the same tasks
- The creation of new tasks spurred by autonomous technologies
Suk Lee and Chung found that with more companies turning to automation, those companies also need more laborers to operate and manage autonomous systems. Additionally, there has been a recent shift in the way robots are being used with the rise of collaborative robots (cobots). Instead of using traditional industrial robots, which have to caged off away from workers for safety, companies are using cobots that can work right alongside humans.
“When robots were initially introduced, the intent was to cut costs and replace human workers. But now companies are using ‘collaborative robots’ or ‘cobots,’ which are designed to work together with humans,” Lee told Notre Dame News.
Cobots present the opportunity for companies to supplement their workforce with robotics, making them more productive without necessarily laying off workers. These robots can help companies surpass production targets and take on new projects, creating more job openings for human workers.
“Our findings pointed to the automotive sector in the U.S., which is the largest adopter of robotics, and we see this transitioning of what an automobile is, what the industry is (i.e., electric vehicles). I think that will create a different type of demand for tasks, skills and workers. Robots can not only help existing workers, but can help recruit new, specialized workers in that domain as the technology evolves,” Lee said.
The research team also observed a spillover effect for supporting industries within and outside the manufacturing sector. As more companies adopt robots, service sectors and professional services, like accountants and lawyers, within the local economy also see a boost.
Suk Lee and Chung noted that much of the changes they observed happened within the automotive industry, which has traditionally been the biggest adopter of robotics. However, this began to shift in 2020 and 2021, when non-automotive sales topped automotive sales for the first time, according to the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), so it’s possible we could see the same effects in other industries as they continue adopting automation.
It’s also important to note that Suk Lee and Chung’s research ended in 2016, and cobots of all kinds, including autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have only gained popularity since then, further augmenting the workforce.