The assembly line wasn’t born in America—but it certainly came of age here. Adam Smith dreamed up the division of labor way back in the 1770s, and during the Industrial Revolution, thousands of people crammed into factories to perform separate tasks that added up to one product. But it took Henry Ford, fixated on the most efficient production for his famed Model T, to perfect the science of the assembly line in his Detroit factory in 1913. Within a decade, the technique became ubiquitous, the undisputed gold standard of streamlined manufacturing.
There was only one problem with the assembly line: It required people. Lots of people. A standard product of American manufacturing—say, a car—has thousands of parts, many of which might require hours of labor to complete. Those parts need to be built sturdily and safely but also quickly and soundly. You can train a human how to build a V8 engine, but you can’t make him rush.
That’s where the robots come in.
Whether or not most Americans know it, we’re already living in the golden age of robots—robotic manufacturing, that is. As U.S. manufacturers focus on creating advanced, high-tech production in order to save time, energy, and money, robots have taken center stage as the next great innovation in industry. Many of their benefits are obvious: Robots can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week; they don’t need training, only programming; and they can often accomplish tasks more swiftly than even the more competent human worker. Plus, industrial robots can do things humans simply can’t: The precision required in biotechnology and nanotechnology, for instance, is beyond the capacity of a human hand—but not of a robot arm’s mechanized steadiness. And in the field of drug research, where workers may be exposed to toxic or corrosive chemicals, a robotic hand can reduce the risk of dangerous exposure.
This kind of automation was once prohibitively expensive, the province only of huge corporations with surplus capital to spare. The price is currently plummeting, however. Since 1990, the cost of automation relative to labor has fallen nearly 50 percent, allowing middle market companies to capitalize on its efficiency. And companies that incorporate robots into manufacturing have simultaneously decreased their carbon footprint, dramatically curbing their use of energy and material.
Because of its potential to boost green, lean production, automation is quickly becoming a staple in advanced manufacturing across the country. In 2011, the U.S. government began pushing for an even greater expansion in robots. As part of his Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, President Barack Obama launched the National Robotics Initiative, allowing four agencies to collaborate—with a $70 million budget—to develop the next generation of robotic manufacturing. Specifically, the president has encouraged the initiative to design automation that will expedite aerospace development, improve food production and safety, and accelerate medical research.
Aerospace, food, medicine—these are precisely the areas in which U.S. manufacturers are leading the way. For more than a decade, American advanced manufacturers have been incorporating cutting-edge technology to regrow the economy on a more solid, sustainable foundation. Many of these manufacturers are situated in the middle market—big enough to invest in the future, but small enough to take major risks and still land on their feet. These companies will benefit inestimably from automation, furthering their already impressive productivity while reducing their waste and overhead.
In pop culture, robots are often associated with some dreadfully dystopian future—rise in manufacturing employment. Automation doesn’t steal jobs from workers; it creates new jobs in new fields, allowing Americans to make more goods more efficiently. If a robot can be programmed to accomplish the menial labor unavoidable in some manufacturing, a human can be taught a more complex task, or a more personalized one. The need to accomplish these tasks will encourage a new generation of workers to obtain the special skills necessary to compete in an advanced industry.
Advanced manufacturing has already helped lift America out of the recession. With the escalation of automation, it can help pave the way toward an even more innovative and creative future. Robots aren’t dystopian, or even futuristic. They’re already here. And as automation becomes available to companies of all sizes, the possibilities of robotic invention will soon be boundless.