Automation: The Pessimist’s View

In general, we’re positive about automation. Automation takes on jobs that are dull, dangerous, and dirty so that human beings can do more valuable work, we figure. Innovation can mean the end of some jobs, but it brings on new jobs, too. The future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades.

However, there are some other aspects of automation today that could lead to different outcomes. Since it’s Friday, we’re sharing a video that makes these points.

Automation favors the capitalists

Productivity has been increased by automation, so that productivity is up but the number of workers is down. A few years ago, a factory in China replaced 90% of its workers with robots and saw a 250% rise in productivity.

The owners of the factory naturally saw much higher profits. The laid-off workers were unemployed, and the 10% of workers who stayed didn’t see any significant increase in their income. This pattern shows that the modern pattern of increasing productivity through automation benefits a small group of people: the machine owners.

In the past, automation could make products like cars into commodities that workers could buy. A car made by artisans for the wealthy provided work for artisans and profits for the owners. But a car made with automation could make cars for the workers at a much lower price, jobs for workers so they could buy cars, and profits for the factory owners. It was a win-win-win situation for capitalists, workers, and consumers.

The video compares Blockbuster and Netflix. Blockbuster employed far more people than Netflix, but Netflix makes more profit with far fewer workers. Consumers like Netflix better and the owners make more money, but there isn’t a real upside for the workers. When Blockbuster went out of business, their workers lost their jobs.

Productivity increases aren’t sustainable

While automation can increase productivity a lot, there’s still the law of supply and demand. Unemployed or underpaid workers may not be able to buy all the goods being produced, even if they want them.

Some kinds of automated production, like fast fashion and fast food, produce things that only make a profit if people consume them in much larger amounts than they did before automation…but they’re not as desirable. Even if productivity continues to ramp up and prices continue to fall, there is a limit to how many poorly made polyester T shirts anybody wants to buy.

As supply outpaces demand, increasing productivity stops being a good thing.

Should we be doing automation differently?

Increasing and improving automation sounds good to us. We want to help keep your Rexroth motion control in great shape so you can meet your goals, whatever those might be.

Factory repair and reman keep your facility perking along in the most cost-effective way. Keeping your customers and your workers in mind could add up to the best parts of automation and economics.

When you need service and support for your Rexroth motion control, we can help.

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