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Man Vs. Machine: The New Battleground

RFID technology promises to usher in a new era of supply chain and manufacturing automation. Does it spell the end of work for us humans?
By Samuel Greengard
Oct 01, 2004—When the Auto-ID Center proposed an “Internet of Things”—a world where every manufactured object has an embedded RFID tag and is connected to a network—it conjurred up visions of corporate nirvana. Companies would be able to track every part, every bin of raw materials and every product through a superefficient global supply chain, reducing costs and boosting productivity. And they would be able to automate many routine supply chain and manufacturing tasks.

That dream may appeal to companies, but it represents a possible nightmare for workers. The whole point of RFID is to take people “out of the loop.” In the short term, it means replacing workers who scan bar codes with tags and readers. In the long term, it could mean replacing employees with robots that can distinguish parts, customize products and react to new situations with almost as much flexibility as a human. Conceivably, the only people who would be needed in manufacturing plants, warehouses and distribution centers would be technicians to repair the machines and computers when they break down.

Research into how RFID can be used to automate factories and warehouses is already underway. At the Auto-ID Lab at England’s Cambridge University, research director Duncan McFarlane has begun to assemble robots that can tackle the entire spectrum of the manufacturing process—from machining to product assembly to packing—and ensure that the right products wind up in the right boxes every time. If parts are misplaced, the robots can pick them from those bins and move them to the correct ones. McFarlane says that the technical roadblocks for developing highly automated factories with RFID technology are likely to fall within a few years.

RFID is already having a small impact on jobs. Consumer packaged goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble was able to reduce the number of forklift operators at a manufacturing plant in Spain after introducing an RFID system. Ford Motor Co. reports a 10 percent labor savings at its Sterling Heights, Mich., manufacturing plant as a result of RFID. And NYK Logistics, a Long Beach, Calif., firm that manages shipping for 11 different steamship lines and routes goods to retail giant Target, reduced labor demands when it started tagging all incoming containers and trucks; it now knows where everything is at any given moment, so fewer people are needed to locate trailers in its large distribution yard.

Some people envision the shift from the industrial age to the information age being every bit as dramatic as the shift away from agrarian jobs in the 19th century. In 1862, more than 48 percent of the U.S. workforce held jobs in farming and agriculture. Today, the figure is just over one half of 1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Will the same thing happen as we move from a world where people have to run machines to one where computers control the machines? Will RFID and sensory networks accelerate the trend? And what kind of work will replace manufacturing and supply chain jobs if that is the case?

A move away from manufacturing jobs is clearly underway and has been for several years. “Over the next 20 years, the nature of the manufacturing job will change, just as it has over the past 20 years,” says Sophia Koropeckyj, an economist with Economy.com, a market research and consulting firm based in West Chester, Pa. “Robotics and automation are not new phenomena. RFID is part of an ongoing technology trend.”

The trend doesn’t bode well for blue-collar workers. In 1998, the U.S. economy supported 17.6 million manufacturing jobs. Today, the figure stands at 14.4 million, according to Economy.com. And while there’s a strong temptation to point to China, India and other low-wage countries, which offer lower manufacturing costs, as the culprit for a shrinking manufacturing base, Koropeckyj insists that almost every nation in the world is experiencing a net decline in manufacturing jobs—even China. “Technology improvements are eliminating manual labor and automating away many jobs,” Koropeckyj says. “We are witnessing steady productivity improvements.”
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