Meet the World’s Army of Robots

From a Wall Street Journal story by Christopher Mims headlined “Meet the Army of Robots Coming to Fill In for Scarce Workers”:

A new wave of robots is arriving—and, in a world short of workers, business leaders are more eager to welcome them than ever.

A combination of hard-pressed employers, technological leaps and improved cost effectiveness has fueled a rapid expansion of the world’s robot army. A half-million industrial robots were installed globally last year, according to data released Thursday by the trade group International Federation of Robotics—an all-time high exceeding the previous record, set in 2018, by 22%.

The total population of industrial robots in the world has now also reached an all-time high, 3.5 million, which exceeds the population of every U.S. city save New York and Los Angeles, according to the federation.

This all amounts to a potentially titanic shift in the way things are made, transported and even consumed, ushering in what some who study the phenomenon call a “roboconomy.” Even more than we do now, in the future we will depend on robots to grow our food, make our goods, care for our elderly and continue to grow the global economy, predict researchers, economists, engineers and business leaders.

Even one-time skeptics have come around. Elon Musk in 2018 tweeted that “humans are underrated” and that excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. Now that he is running a much bigger company at a time of labor shortfalls, he has jumped on the autonomously driven bandwagon with gusto.

Late last month, the billionaire unveiled an early prototype of a humanoid robot called Optimus that Tesla plans to eventually sell for less than $20,000 and that the company plans to use in car production. “It will, I think, turn the whole notion of what’s an economy on its head, at the point at which you have no shortage of labor,” he said.

There’s every reason to believe the accelerated embrace of robots will continue, given the aging workforces and other demographic shifts that are driving long-term worker shortages all over the world.

China, which established itself as the world’s factory floor on the backs of the world’s biggest human workforce, has been by far the largest adopter of robots in recent years, and was responsible for half of all industrial-robot installations in 2021. There were 62,000 robots installed in its automotive industry last year, double the number of the year prior.

In Japan, one of the world’s most advanced economies, the ratio of robots used in manufacturing to the number of humans in that industry—a measure called “robot density”—grew almost 30% between 2017 and 2020, after being nearly flat for more than a decade, according to data from the International Federation of Robotics and an analysis by the equity research firm Bernstein.

Jay Huang, an analyst at Bernstein, says the past four years are just the beginning of a “Robot Renaissance,” and that this trend of broader and faster adoption of robots will continue. Driving that adoption is the spread of robots from longtime uses like welding in automobile manufacturing into more challenging tasks. These include picking parts and operating other machines, tasks that require more dexterity, flexibility, and a dollop of artificial intelligence and machine vision.

The “service” robot industry, which basically encompasses every kind of robot that isn’t bolted to the floor, is also growing at a rapid pace, and shows signs that it could soon eclipse traditional industrial robots in rate of growth as well as annual sales.

These service robots include everything from autonomous cleaning robots scouring the floors of your local grocery store—nearly every Sam’s Club and Walmart in America already has one “on staff”—to delivery robots and mobile robots taking over jobs like unloading trucks.

While no one keeps a comprehensive global census of service robots, there are more than 1,000 companies worldwide manufacturing them, 10 times the number making industrial robots. At least 121,000 service robots were installed in 2021, though that is surely an underestimate, says Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the robotics federation. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of service robots installed annually worldwide increased 37%, exceeding the 31% growth in the annual number of industrial robots installed in the same period.

Workers that don’t call in sick

Starting in 2018, many workers could no longer be counted on to show up for their after-hours cleaning shifts, and even when they did, they often weren’t doing a very good job, says Dave Steck, vice president of IT infrastructure and application development at Schnuck Markets, which operates 112 supermarkets in the U.S. Labor shortages only worsened during the pandemic, leading his team to test a handful of autonomous floor-scrubbing robots, before settling on one from Tennant Co. using onboard software made by San Diego-based Brain Corp.

“We used a shine meter to see how much shine we got on the floor, and it was beating the quality from human-driven scrubbers,” says Mr. Steck. The robots also save his company money, compared with what it was paying previously to cleaning companies.

Worldwide, there are more than 20,000 autonomous cleaning robots running Brain Corp.’s software, twice the number in January 2020, says Michel Spruijt, the company’s chief revenue officer.

The convergence of three forces is driving the robot renaissance. The first is that demographic trends in rich countries mean there simply aren’t enough workers, says Craig Webster, a political scientist and associate professor at Ball State University who recently wrote a paper on the topic. His work is backed up by a comprehensive analysis published last June by economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University, which found that across countries, an aging workforce drives adoption of robotics—and the faster that workforce ages, the faster robots are adopted.

The second factor is that robots have become more capable, more quickly, than at any other point since their earliest adoption by the automotive industry in the middle of the 20th century.

“These new robots are just fundamentally different,” says Robert Playter, chief executive of Boston Dynamics, which was acquired last year by Hyundai Motor Group. His company has become famous for its viral videos of its four legged Spot robot roaming the woods, inspecting buildings and dancing to hit songs.

This new generation of robots have mobility and vision, and are capable of flexibility in their behavior that simply hasn’t been possible with the kinds of industrial robots that have been in use in manufacturing since the 1960s.

The third factor is the sum of the prior two: surging human labor costs and more-capable robots mean the amount of time it takes a new robot to pay for itself is shrinking, according to research by Dr. Huang of Bernstein. In China, for example, a robot that can operate a machine tool in a factory can do the work of two or even three humans, and can pay for itself in less than two years.

Another example of robots coming to the rescue of employers in competitive labor markets is the rollout of Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot. Stretch is a large, four-wheeled robot sporting a crane-like arm with a vacuum-powered gripper at the end, capable of unloading boxes from shipping containers or trucks. In a typical, human-staffed loading dock, this is difficult, injury-prone work. Logistics is an industry where pandemic-fueled growth, rapidly appreciating wages and high turnover have forced employers to battle one another for workers willing and able to do these jobs.

DHL Supply Chain, a contract-logistics company that is part of DHL, has been testing Stretch for 18 months in a warehouse in Memphis, Tenn., says Sally Miller, the company’s chief information officer. The company plans to roll out 20 to 30 of them in the first six months of 2023, all for unloading boxes from trucks. The difficulty of hiring workers in her industry is one reason she’s enthusiastic about the robot, she adds.

In many industries, workers aren’t nearly as sanguine as their bosses about the introduction of more automation.

One unresolved issue in negotiations between terminal operators and the trade unionsrepresenting longshore workers on the West Coast is which terminals will be automated, and what will happen to the truck drivers and other port workers who will lose their current jobs as a result.

Similarly, labor shortages and management’s response to them in America’s railroad industry were at the heart of recent negotiations between unions and employers. Rail companies have proposed eliminating train conductors entirely, and fully automating their trains.

History shows that, while automation typically takes over some of the tasks performed by humans, over time companies shift workers into different types of jobs, especially in tight labor markets. But, as was the case with the 19th century weavers known as Luddites, more automation can lead to smaller workforces in the short term, as well as worse conditions for workers.

Remaking the world in robots image

One of the most significant barriers to adoption of robots of every kind is that, however much they’ve improved in the past few years, they remain clumsy and inflexible compared with humans.

At Schnucks, only about half the chain’s stores use cleaning robots, because they are incompatible with older-style floors. As stores are updated to polished concrete ones, more robots will be rolled out, says Mr. Steck. Another problem is that autonomous cleaning robots require wide, clear aisles. This means stores can’t set out the kind of manufacturer-produced displays—called shippers—that typically stand in aisles and entice shoppers to make more impulse purchases, he adds.

Similarly, the Stretch robot is for now limited to unloading trucks and shipping containers loaded in a particular way—ones where all the boxes are of relatively uniform size, weigh less than 50 pounds, and are stacked directly on the floor, says Ms. Miller.

Roboticists say realizing a roboconomy will require meeting the robots in the middle: Robot makers will continue to improve their products’ ability, while we also remake our world in ways that accommodate these robots.

“We have really built a world meant for humans to navigate, not for robots to,” says Dr. Webster of Ball State University. “In the future, we will have to make a world that is attuned to the needs of the robot.”

Christopher Mims is a columnist who writes about technology for The Wall Street Journal’s tech bureau in San Francisco. The subjects of his columns vary widely from one week to the next. He has written about bidets, brain implants, the cult of the founder, the history of technology, innovation, venture capital, robotics, batteries, energy, materials science, wireless communications, AI, data science, telepresence, microchips, logistics, IT, 3D printing and autonomous boats, trucks, cars, drones and flying taxis. Christopher joined the Journal from Quartz, where he also covered technology. He has won a Sabew award for commentary, and has written a book, “Arriving Today” on how supply chains work.

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