The IPC study put some numbers around what anecdotal evidence has been suggesting for years—the companies that are bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. cited quality control as the primary reason.
As far as creating jobs in the U.S. and our North American neighbors are concerned, the return of $2.5 billion in electronics manufacturing that had been shifted overseas beats a sharp stick in the eye. But it's not possible to know how many other electronics manufacturing operations will be offshored over the same three years. Net-net, more manufacturing (and jobs) may end up leaving the U.S. than coming back in.
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the use of robots to replace factory workers could actually have an upside for U.S. workers. But the principle reason that so much manufacturing has fled the U.S. and other western nations for China and other emerging economies is that the people there were willing and able to do the work for less money than workers in the U.S. and Europe. As more human labor is taken out of the equation, offshoring becomes less and less attractive, especially in light of concerns about quality control.
A factory where most of the work is done by robots won't create near as many jobs as one where the work is done by people. But a robot-filled factory in the U.S. will create more American jobs than an automated or un-automated factory in China.
As George Leopold pointed out (link here), there are also indirect links between technology innovation and job creation. Even if robots are doing the heavy lifting, the infrastructure and supply needs of a thriving factory translate into jobs.
It's natural for those of us who work for living to snarl at the idea of machines replacing people on the factory floor. But if the factory floor jobs in question are not going to be in the U.S., anyway, this trend could actually be good for the U.S. economy and U.S. workers. Tech workers may certainly need to acquire new skills, but more products built in the U.S. more efficiently will spur funding for innovation and other products, ultimately creating more work and improving U.S. competitiveness.
I have long wondered about the supposed labor cost advantage of manufacturing overseas if the biggest percentage of the assembly is robotic anyway. Even if, the standard of living in China, India and other not-so-third world countries has risen, partly eliminating any labor cost advantage. If we were talking shirts here, economics would send the factories to fourth-world places and the cycle would repeat.
But there is a big difference between a shirt and a smart phone. Quality is an issue. Unlike '70s cars,
built with just enough quality to get through the warranty, today's miniaturized precision electronics require high quality control to even work coming off the line. A pent up supply of jobless workers ready to be retrained, governments ready to give large tax breaks for factories, and possibly a whiff of some tax law changes upcoming to remove penalties of repatriating offshore cash are some of the reasons we can look forward to at least a trickle of electronics manufacturing jobs returning. No, there won't be as many due to robotics, but today we we'll take all we can get. And I doubt transportation costs will be significant. A single 40 ft sea container can hold a lot of iPhones.
The Japanese use some of the "freed up" labor from automation to improve quality including training the remaining workers and the robotics tech types.
We tend to squeeze every cent of profit out for wages or shareholders. Penny wise and pound foolish?
A small observation: The Screaming Circuits type companies who make prototype quantities are already building with robots. Try finding humans who can accurately and repeatably place 1200 parts on a single circuit board ranging from 0201 chips to 0.5mm pitch 300-ball BGAs, with a few 2x2mm QFN/DFN chips thrown in for good measure! The real jobs at such companies are actually setup, configuration, maintenance, management, customer service, etc. No more little old ladies with paint brushes painting radium onto the dials of instruments!
If we are on-shoring using robots, shouldn't we be using US made robots too?
The largest robot makers are European or Japanese, and soon to be Chinese.
Adept Technology (as the New York Times article and videos point out) is the leading US robot manufacturer and should be included in any discussions about re-shoring using robotics.
The main job growth by switching to Robots would NOT be in their operation but in mfr.ing and programming the Robots themselves. So long as that is done in the US and not outsourced again new skilled jobs will be created for machine vision & sensor experts, mech. & electrical engrs, machinists, PCB mfrs. and assemblers, programmers, process & tooling experts, maintenance techs. etc. etc. If ea. 4 or 5 outsourced production worker ( @ $ 15 k a year ) is replaced by a $ 250 k robot, that would create at least $200k worth business for Robot Mfr. and @ 2 robots per Tech about $ 40 k worth of jobs for operating / programming / maint tech on an ongoing basis. Thus the $ 2 billion a year worth of "on - shore" prod. mentioned in the article could mean as many as 20 k new skilled jobs here with all the usual benefits to the local economy and tax base.
Sounds like a good deal for all except for the handful who have been making billions by outsourcing US manufcaturing and technology to China.
if Quality control is indeed the main factor for in-shore jobs then what kind of jobs are we talking about? i guess most of the jobs will be blue collar. Also, as rightly pointed out in article, if most of such jobs are automated then i do not feel much to cheer about.