The 'closer to home' strategy is why US companies are now shifting from traditional manufacturing processes to fully automated ones
New Delhi: According to the International Labour Organization numbers released in July, an estimated 137 million Asian workers could lose their jobs to robots globally in the next 20 years. In January this year, the US Census Bureau suggested that robots will take over as many as five million jobs in the US alone by 2020. And it seems, we are slowly building up to that.
It was just last year that Adidas, the shoes, clothing and accessories company, had announced plans for setting up a factory in Ansbach, south Germany, which will start production by 2017. But this wasn’t going to be just any manufacturing unit for churning out the latest line-ups of footwear. What remained unique about this manufacturing unit was the fact that it was fully automated, and that robots would manufacture shoes. Things seem to move rather quickly when robots are in charge, it seems, and Adidas has rolled out the first shoe made at this robot factory, called SPEEDFACTORY. The shoe is called Futurecraft M.F.G. (Made for Germany), and it’ll initially be exclusive to the German markets only. The Ansbach unit is expected to roll out other shoes as well in the coming months.
However, this is just the start. As a part of its global vision, Adidas has announced that it is now setting up a SPEEDFACTORY in Cherokee County, Atlanta, US. More countries are expected to be added over the next few months. “It gives us the opportunity to combine unique manufacturing speed with the flexibility to rethink conventional processes," said James Carnes, vice-president of strategy creation at Adidas, in an official statement.
The Futurecraft M.F.G features Adidas’s trademark Primeknit upper and Boost midsole, and the company also used the motion capture technology called ARAMIS to understand the differences in stress and tension caused by different materials. Incidentally, NASA uses the ARAMIS technology’s digital image correlation to inspect the hull of spacecrafts.
The ARAMIS technology uses high-speed cameras with sensors which capture information as fast as 500 frames per second. Post the data capture, software-based algorithms visualize almost every aspect of a human foot, giving the Adidas engineers a better idea of the foot movement, stress points and where improvements or tweaks need to be made.
At present, the SPEEDFACTORY will produce limited number of Futurecraft M.F.G. footwear, and it isn’t yet at the scale as a traditional manufacturing unit where humans lead the process.
However, there are advantages of going the way of the robots. First, there is lower cost of manufacturing and maintaining at robot-led facilities. Second, with the human input reduced significantly, perhaps the most skilled job being of controlling the robots and the automated production line, American companies will have the chance to move factories closer to home and even to more developed countries, since the manpower cost will not be a factor anymore. This will hurt countries such as China and Brazil, which have all along used low-cost labour to their advantage. However, that advantage is slowly disappearing—in April 2015, car maker Ford shifted 3,200 jobs from Mexico to the US state of Ohio, while Wal-Mart (4,838 jobs) and Boeing (2,700 jobs) also re-shored jobs back to the US due to rising costs and volatile labour trends elsewhere.
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