Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Low-cost Labor No Substitute For Robots

Thomas Fuller of the International Herald Tribune looks at car manufacturing in Thailand and other low-cost labor countries and asks the question, "Why bother with million-dollar robots when you have people who will work for $10 a day?"

I think most readers of Robot Gossip know the answer is that cost reduction is only one of many talents that robots bring to a factory. Let's see what Mr. Fuller discovered...

For a variety of reasons, including safety, automation is necessary even in countries where an army of cheaply paid workers is readily available.

"Some things can't be done safely by people," William Botwick, president of General Motors Thailand, yelled over the din of a stamping machine as it crushed steel into side panels and chassis. "So you need a robot."

But while companies in many industries have moved their operations to Asia, the complex equation of timeliness, quality control and cost in the auto industry dictates that car production is not as easily outsourced as sewing a shirt or a pair of pants.

Deciding on the level of automation in these far-flung manufacturing plants depends on several factors, but the main consideration is volume: robots work much faster, more efficiently and with less risk of accident than humans in certain jobs, and they can make sure there are no bottlenecks in the process.

Hajime Yamamoto, an independent auto consultant based in Bangkok cites a more intriguing reason carmakers choose automation. Newly built Japanese factories in China use robots intensively despite relatively low labor costs, he said.

"The workers don't have much experience," Yamamoto said, "Instead of educating them, they prefer to use more robots."

The Workplace: Robots in low-cost lands - Business - International Herald Tribune


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