At the foot of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a sprawling campus of large, yellow
buildings hides within a forest of pine trees. Inside, an army of robots
toils night and day, holidays and weekends, making copies of themselves.
These bumblebee-yellow bots — mostly big, sleek, intelligent arms — are
strong enough to lift a Corvette and nimble enough to pack heads of
lettuce. The company behind this mechanical kingdom, FANUC, has already
built a record of over 420,000 robots. American industry averages just over
1.5 robots for every 100 human employees. FANUC has 200 robots for every
Even in 1960, John F. Kennedy campaigned on retraining American workers who
eventually would be replaced by automated machines. Yet technology is only
now catching up with such visions. By 2019, robotics experts predict more
than a million robots will hit shop floors worldwide in what some call the
Fourth Industrial Revolution. But these Asimovian achievements weren’t
always as inevitable as futurists would have you believe.
It's a vision of a factory that never stops.
In the 1980s, General Motors’ failed modernization attempt showed how
difficult it was to get the tech right. Then-CEO Roger Smith tried to beat
Japanese automakers with “lights out” manufacturing. He wanted robots
automated enough to build cars in dark, lifeless factories. GM partnered
with FANUC to build the first generation of those yellow bots. But the tech
wasn’t ready. Media accounts revealed robots painting themselves instead of
“GM pushed it harder than the technology could support,” says John
Roemisch, a former GM employee and a current FANUC corporate VP. “They were
taking 10 steps instead of one step at a time.” Robotics never stopped
advancing, but as the dream of fully automated factories slipped further
into the future, manufacturing moved to countries with cheap labor.
Then, about a decade ago, FANUC integrated cameras to give robots sight.
That killed the high cost of perfectly aligning production lines so robots
got parts at precise times. Next, engineers gave robots an ability that
previously required human hands: touch sensitivity, so they could snap
parts into place and create tight fits.
“Now the latest thing — and what everyone is excited about — is driving the
robot to be able to learn, to be able to sense, to be able to communicate,”
Roemisch says. FANUC recently teamed with IT mega-company Cisco Systems and
industrial powerhouse Rockwell Automation on tech that connects robots,
conveyor belts and vibration sensors into one well-oiled machine.
The tech brings the so-called Internet of Things into these manufacturing
mainstays, linking devices to one another and the internet. But the
ultimate automation goal is what FANUC calls “zero down time.” It’s a
vision of a factory that never stops, not even for maintenance. The
connected machines monitor themselves, spotting potential problems before
they come up, like a car that knows it needs an oil change. Among the early
Ox and Buggy
But the biggest leap in automation stems from perhaps its least sexy
advancement — software. Peter Gratschmayr is a senior engineer at Midwest
Engineered Systems, a company that takes robots like FANUC’s and designs
systems so the machines can actually build a company’s product. He says
today’s software makes robots easier to set up, teach and maintain.
“We’re just at the edge of it now where the software is fast enough, is
intuitive enough,” he says. “All these different types of capabilities that
weren’t available in the past are feasible now.” That’s allowing industry
worldwide to give remaining mundane factory jobs to robots.
A recent Oxford University report predicts computers could take over half
of U.S. jobs in the next two decades. And in 2016, the World Economic Forum
gathered international political and business leaders to discuss a future
“world without work.” Some experts — like Andy Stern, former president of
the Service Employees International Union — argue that American workers
will need a universal basic income to survive in this post-work economy.
For now, America has seen some “reshoring” — factories that return
stateside, as robots offset labor costs. But mostly the jobs they bring
aren’t on the assembly line; they’re in software and robot maintenance.
“You’re going to need a high school education or better to be able to work
in today’s factory,” Gratschmayr says. “You can still plow fields using an
ox and a buggy, but why would you if you could use a tractor?”