The United States has a long tradition of pioneering the making of things, but recently these efforts have come into question for a variety reasons. Changes in labor markets and the supply of energy are two such reasons. The role of technology is perhaps one of the most disruptive. Some fear that automated equipment will put people out of jobs, but there are emerging examples of people and technology working together.

Although technology can take away some jobs, it also creates new opportunities for innovation. According to the authors of Making in America, changes in how we create things will drive innovation. Technology can speed production and provide more energy sources. It can also help level the playing field when it comes to labor costs. Instead of thinking of robots as job stealers, we ought to think of them as job changers. For decades, some among us have been foreboding that robots will steal our jobs, putting us out of work, leaving us desolate and wayward. But, in fact, many of these predictions have failed to come true. And where robots have entered the workforce, they often work along side people, supporting them where and when necessary. This is perhaps a more sensible way to envision the future, one in which robots do the jobs we won’t — or can’t — do.

Robots are extending our reach beyond our grasp. Automated assembly has been around for decades, with people typically feeding materials into the assembly line and robots performing dangerous or repetitive tasks. Future versions of these manufacturing facilities might, in fact, be completely empty of people yet be heavily under the influence of skilled workers. Called ‘cloud manufacturing’, researchers envision people providing their skills remotely around the world. A person with a particular skill could virtually work at numerous manufacturing facilities, using robots to execute their commands on physical objects. In other words, workers might be able to build a car from home.

Robots are poised to take over some dangerous jobs that have, until now, been done exclusively by people. SINTEF Fisheries and Agriculture in Norway developed a robotic arm that can filet a fish. Using 3D scanning, the robot senses the incoming fish, develops the optimal cutting solution to minimize waste, and uses an arm-and-knife to execute the cuts. Although a human fishmonger is currently much more adept at the task, future iterations of SINTEF’s robot could save human fingers from being severed along with fish heads. If people wish to avoid an environment in which knives slice through air and flesh with ease, surely even more would wish to avoid an environment that all together lacks air. Experiencing space as a traveler (from the comfort of a transport vessel) is inevitable. But experiencing space as an assembly line worker is probably not high on many people’s career goals. Engineers from Tethers Unlimited, Inc developed a robot that would gladly do this job. Called SpiderFab, the system will 3D print and automatically assemble large structures in space, structures that are currently much too large to be launched from the ground on a rocket.

Robots are ever ready, able to be deployed at a moments notice. Some suspect that the future of transportation of goods is in the hands (or grippers?) of drones. Flying robots will deliver food and other goods to people in urban and remote areas. Although this could put some pizza delivery folks out of a job, drones such as these have a higher calling. Requiring no sleep and being constantly ready, drones could save lives. Developed by the German company Height-Tech, defibrillators could be deployed through the air, arriving well before emergency medical services. But the goal is not to replace emergency medical personnel. Rather, the drone will extend the window for help to arrive.

We have long feared that robots will take over our jobs, but current trends point to collaborative human-robot teams. These systems will draw on the strengths of each. Robots will allow us to exert our will in distance factories, perform tasks in dangerous environments, and move equipment with response times that would make the Minute Men jealous. People will still play important roles. They will monitor and intervene using their expertise, making decisions and performing tasks that algorithms are incapable of performing. At least not yet, anyway…



Image credit: Steve Jurvetson


(This article first appeared in 2013; updated in 2018.)