Friday, May 04, 2018

Move Over, China

"We can't find enough humans. We're trying to replace people with machines wherever we can [to remain productive]."
"We'll still need people. But robots are more reliable."
Zbynek Frolik, CEO Linet, Prague Czech Republic 

"A labour shortage will continue for years."
"We must be prepared to find more human employees, or find a way to substitute for them."
Bohdan Dovhanic, business director, Schneider Electric, Prague

"It's becoming [inability to expand for lack of workers] a brake on growth."
"If businesses don't increase robotization and artificial intelligence, they'll disappear."
Jaroslav Hanak, president, Czech Confederation of Industry 

"Unless business leaders, politicians and trade unions react well in advance and responsibly to the upcoming industrial revolution, even more jobs may be under threat [resulting from lack of available human labour]."
Josef Stredula, president, Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions
At Linet, most welding, cutting, painting and molding functions were automated a decade ago. Thirty industrial robots do the work of up to 200 people. But that doesn’t offset the need for humans.   CreditMilan Bures for The New York Times

Although China is dedicated to its vision of a world monopoly on manufacturing consumer items to control global trade as well as natural resources, and apply its intelligence to conquering new frontiers in technology, it is, it seems, not the only country capable of applying itself to taking a greater share of the commerce that keeps the world humming along. There are nations in eastern Europe, once part of the Soviet bloc, whose manufacturing capabilities were constrained by the ideology of Communism, who now focus on excellence in manufacturing techniques to challenge China's superiority in producing cheap, inexpensive consumer products.

At Linet, manufacturers of state-of-the-art hospital beds which over 100 countries import for their hospitals, the discovery that new employees, badly needed to enable them to produce and expand the company, are nowhere to be found. Their factories in central Bohemia advertise for new employees right across the Czech Republic, but even though raising wages to tempt new workers were tried, as well as offers to subsidize worker housing, there were few responses.

Now, at the Linet manufacturing plants there are 30 industrial robots hard at work, performing work normally done by up to two hundred human employees. Still, the company is on the lookout for humans to program machines and perform custom work whose complex nature cannot yet be undertaken by robotic help.
The labor shortage has been so stark in the Czech Republic that even the trams in Prague have run less frequently this year for want of drivers.  CreditMilan Bures for The New York Times
The Czech Republic and its neighbours recognize the imperative to adopt robots to confront their labour shortages. And as well for the obvious purpose of increasing manufacturing flexibility and output. Although inviting foreign workers to enter would represent another solution to the problem to acquire human labour where it is needed, the government has pledged that it will limit immigration in response to the general rejection in eastern Europe of the flow of migrant labour from Africa and the Middle East.

Natural population growth in Europe as in all Western countries is low, and the realization is that more people are dying than are being replaced by new births to stabilize national population levels. Which succeeds in ensuring high employment but fails to produce sufficient workers to satisfy the needs of employers. Robots are recognized as a solution in eastern Europe for worker shortages. Businesses in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland are aware of the imperative to remain agile to compete.

They became low-cost manufacturing hubs for Europe when the USSR fell, and have since then averaged a production growth of five percent in more recent years, helped along by the global recovery from the broad-based 2008 recession. Companies experiment now in replacement of factory workers and truck drivers with artificial intelligence. Workers, though well employed, fear the rise of automation as heralding a potential mass job displacement.

In eastern Europe, however, the lowest jobless rate in the European Union, comes in at 2.4 percent; it would be the envy of workers in North America. Between 2010 and 2015, new robot installations rose 40 percent in the Czech Republic, the result being that at present, roughly101 robots are at work for every 10,000 workers, and more on the way as companies gear toward improving productivity. In Germany, there are 300 robots per 10,000 workers, the greatest such ratio in all of Europe.
Buyers crowded around “smart” machines that tested car headlights or interacted with humans in shared work spaces at the Amper trade fair, in the Czech city of Brno.    CreditMilan Bures for The New York Times

At Elko Co., producing industrial timers for companies such as General Electric, 70 percent of production is fully automated, with the company planning to be close to full robotization in a few years' time. Factory floor workers were moved by Jiri Konecny, the company's chief executive, to perform more complex roles, while hundreds of other employees were to focus on research and development. "If we didn't invest early in automation, we'd be dead by now", he stated.

The Czech Republic can boast that it was they who coined the word robot, derived from "rabota", the Slavonic term describing arduous work. The word itself appeared for the first time in a Czech play dating from 1920 focusing on machines created to perform repetitive factory tasks. In the play, the robots do their work competently, then manage over time to take over; a nightmare scenario repeated in many science fiction works, since then.

"You won't switch off the robots and bring back people", warns Michal Pechoucek, head of the Artificial Intelligence Center at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Linet is one of the world’s biggest hospital bed makers, with 900 employees making 500 beds a day. Its devices monitor and collect data on patient health, and can cost as much as a BMW.    CreditMilan Bures for The New York Time

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