Automation and Robots on the Rise, Reshaping the Workplace

By Brown, Lisa | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 3, 2017 | Go to article overview

Automation and Robots on the Rise, Reshaping the Workplace


Brown, Lisa, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


At the sprawling GM assembly plant in Wentzville, a nearly 9-ton robot named Godzilla grabs pickup cabs off the ground floor and places them on a second-floor conveyor so body shop workers can install doors and hoods.

Forty miles away at St. Louis University Hospital, surgeons use da Vinci robot hands to do the delicate work of removing kidney tumors and other specialized procedures.

At a Richmond Heights grocery, customers watch some bug-eyed, some smiling as an inventory-checking robot named Tally patrols the aisles, looking for out-of-stock items.

It seems as though anywhere one looks in the St. Louis area, there are signs of highly advanced machines doing tasks once performed solely by humans.

On Labor Day weekend, when Americans traditionally celebrate the achievements of working men and women, that's a worrisome trend for many one that shows no sign of slowing. More than 19,000 robots valued at $1.031 billion were sold in North America in the first half of 2017, setting a new record, according to the Association for Advancing Automation, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based trade association.

But as robots become more visible across a broader array of industries, those pushing for increased automation say it's critical for companies' competitiveness and survival.

"The number of robots per capita will start to rise significantly," said Mehdi Miremadi, a partner at McKinsey & Co.'s Chicago office and key researcher on the management consulting firm's recent report on robots, automation and artificial intelligence.

The inclusion of robots is occurring across multiple industries and more are on the way, particularly in back-office technology that consumers don't see, said Darryl Piaseck, a partner in McKinsey's St. Louis office. A machine or robot can potentially take over about 49 percent of worker activities, according to McKinsey's report.

"It's happening. The robots are going to be among us," says Brad Bogolea, CEO of San Francisco-based Simbe Robotics.

Bogolea and other Simbe employees were in St. Louis recently to monitor three of their robots that were being tested at area Schnucks stores. "Brick-and-mortar retail hasn't changed much outside of the cash register," Bogolea said. "Bringing robots to a space like this is a huge shift."

Maryland Heights-based Schnuck Markets insists it tested Tally not with the goal of cutting workers' jobs, but as a way to see how data collection can make the company more competitive.

Despite those assurances, union officials are wary.

"Technology is a wonderful thing, and I welcome it, but I hope Schnucks and all other companies recognize what got them to where they're at customer service from humans," said David Cook, president of Local 655 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents thousands of checkers, stockers and other of the company's employees. "Whenever there are advancements, we worry about what jobs are going to be left for middle-class workers. Today it's checking for out of stock items, but what is it tomorrow?

"Technology, once it starts moving, it goes extremely fast," Cook continued. "Customers in St. Louis and across America still want customer service from humans, not robots."

'CHANGING OUTCOMES'

General Motors has used robots to help workers assemble vehicles dating to the early 1960s. From 2012 to 2016, General Motors' employment grew from 80,000 to 105,000, while the automaker increased its fleet of robots from 20,000 to 30,000, said Marty Linn, GM's principal engineer of robotics. "We're adding more jobs by adding more robots," Linn said.

After adding production of the Colorado and Canyon redesigned pickups at its Wentzville assembly plant a few years ago, the plant increased hiring and added shifts. GM, which also makes vans at the plant, now employs about 4,600 people at the assembly plant for three shifts running six days a week.

Wentzville is the only GM plant to have a frame turnover robot that the company is considering adding at more plants, Linn said. …

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