Robots, Rural Small Business and China

By MARK RIFFEY for the Flathead Beacon Newspaper

Recently, I was reading a story in the New York Times about a Chinese city’s effort to vastly expand their use of industrial robotics. The story’s video hits home 98 seconds in.

The official being interviewed indicates that the city’s goal is to reduce the number of employees by half and finishes his sentence by saying “many companies are working toward this goal“.
Not one company in one town. Not the company responsible for the birth of Chinese industrial robotics, but “many companies”.

Why expand robotics use?

640px-Shadow_Hand_Bulb_large

Shadow Dexterous Robot Hand holding a lightbulbulb. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia (Shadow robot Company, ©Hugo Elias/Richard Greenhill).

They’re doing this by working toward the creation and deployment of high-quality “human-like” robotics technology.
A senior manager at one of their leading manufacturers of industrial robots says “China’s demand for industrial robots has been on the rise year after year. Compared to America, Japan and Europe, the increase in demand is enormous.”

When I dig a little deeper, I find that there are a number of reasons for this drive to expand the robotization of China – and not all of them are expected:
They can’t hire enough people fast enough.
Their level of output has stagnated because there are only so many places to put all of these people, which drives…
They are encouraging people who have abandoned rural areas to move back to their hometowns – in part to take some of their skills with them.
They want to cut manufacturing costs.
They want to increase safety.

 

What’s this got to do with your small business?

Perhaps nothing. However, a few of the items on China’s list are likely to fit business needs in Montana, even though the scale of your project might be dwarfed by a large Chinese manufacturing business.
Can’t hire enough people fast enough.

Not a week goes by without hearing this from someone. Now, to be sure, some of this is driven by salary levels, but most of it is driven by the availability (or lack of it) of trained people in some skill areas. It’s of particular concern in rural areas where you find specialized businesses putting down roots, or simply growing out of local need to create jobs and enterprise.

One of the key things that challenge the expansion of modern businesses in rural areas is the availability of skilled workers with advanced skill sets. Not everyone needs these, but those who do struggle to fill openings when they’re ready to expand.

Abandoned rural areas

Automation_of_foundry_with_robot

Kuka Industrial robot operating in a foundry. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

China’s encouraging people to move back to their hometowns, in part because some of their urban centers are overwhelmed. Hopefully some of this is also because of a desire to improve urban worker lifestyles. The abandonment of rural hometowns isn’t limited to China, however. In the U.S., rural communities have been shrinking due to “brain drain” as their graduates move away to college and either don’t ever return, or perhaps don’t return for several decades. If they wait several decades, they don’t necessarily come back to town and start families. Instead, they come back as empty nesters.

To lure graduates with newly-gained modern skills, their hometown needs a place to work where they can use those skills. Kids don’t leave the valley and run off to college to get an engineering degree so they can move back to town and manage a franchise restaurant.

To cut manufacturing costs

As I noted above, the graduates you want to keep at home need a place to leverage their skills and that place needs to be competitive in the global market they serve, otherwise the jobs are tenuous as the employer will struggle to compete in the long term.

To increase safety

ER4u

The SCORBOT-ER 4u is a robot system designed for educational use. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Safety has been a topic for discussion here in Montana for a while. While some of this is being addressed through training and safety equipment, there is another way to cut down on workplace injuries.

Yes, robotics

These last four items can be addressed in part – not completely – through robotics. Maybe you aren’t ready today. Maybe you don’t manufacture today. Maybe you already have some automation in place. Maybe you and your staff worry that you will be risking your business and its jobs by involving robotics.
Maybe you’ll be risking your business and its jobs if you don’t involve robotics.

While it’s not applicable to every business, it’s worth a look. A safer, more productive workplace creates jobs that more likely to stick around.

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site, contact him on Twitter, or email him at mriffey@flatheadbeacon.com.

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Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site, contact him on Twitter, or email him at mriffey@flatheadbeacon.com.