“Grandma’s hands … clapped in church on Sunday mornin’ … Grandma’s hands … used to ache sometimes and swell.” — from “Grandma’s Hands,” as performed by Bill Withers
Recently I toured the massive Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA) plant in Montgomery, Alabama. The plant opened in 2005, and now some 1,500 cars a day are assembled there. Why go? I’m fascinated by technology in general, but I wanted to see firsthand the advances in the use of robotics in automobile manufacturing.
The tour started in a corner of the facility that was occupied by gigantic rolls of aluminum sheets thinner than a dime. The sheets are cut and pressed into the actual body of a future car, all without human touch. The only people visible in the initial stages of the assembly were a handful of machinists using tricycles with baskets full of tools to get from machine to machine.
Most of the few thousand employees at the plant contribute to the assembly process inside the car. Touch-sensitive tasks like tightening screws and fixtures and adding seals and liners are likely to be performed by people for the near future. Robots are most effective in lifting, moving or setting in place large parts of the car. But they are less useful when it comes to working in smaller spaces, which require the sensitivity and dexterity of human hands. Soon, however, it is likely that robotic technology will be able to perform these tasks as well. The old line about the day a robot can fold a T-shirt is a day of pending unemployment for millions is probably true.
I worry about the human component of this equation. Are we inventing ourselves into the unemployment line, and simultaneously erasing or decreasing employment opportunities for our fellow citizens? It’s a fascinating conundrum in the American workplace, because all of us in business embrace technology when it improves our performance and bottom line. Companies are committed to whatever methods provide the best service and manufacture products most efficiently and expeditiously. That’s the way of the business world, and it’s understandable. In days gone by, new jobs were being created almost as quickly as old jobs were being destroyed by technological innovation. But that’s certainly not the case anymore.
Our tour guides were gracious and informative, and all the employees at the Hyundai plant seemed like hardworking, dedicated folks. We should care about what happens to them and to other American auto workers. This is no niche employment sector. Motor vehicle and parts manufacturing employs almost 1 million Americans and the broader auto sector employs about 4 million of our fellow countrymen. When you consider only about 127 million Americans work full time, that’s a big chunk of the work force at risk due to robotic innovation.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.