Rise of the machines

|     Chico Harlan, The Washington Post     |

DRESSER, Wis – The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign.

Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labelled “fragile”.

“We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said.

They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor.

The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and ear plugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.

The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows.

One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work.

That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.

In factory after American factory, the surrender of the industrial age to the age of automation continues at a record pace.

The transformation is decades along, its primary reasons well-established: a search for cost-cutting and efficiency.

But as one factory in Wisconsin is showing, the forces driving automation can evolve – for reasons having to do with the condition of the American workforce.

The robots were coming in not to replace humans, and not just as a way to modernise, but also because reliable humans had become so hard to find.

It was part of a labour shortage spreading across America, one that economists said is stemming from so many things at once. A low unemployment rate. The retirement of baby boomers.

A younger generation that doesn’t want factory jobs. And, more and more, a workforce in declining health: because of alcohol, because of despair and depression, because of a spike in the use of opioids and other drugs.

In earlier decades, companies would have responded to such a shortage by either giving up on expansion hopes or boosting wages until they filled their positions. But now, they had another option.

Robots had become more affordable. No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate.

As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of small- and medium-size companies that had previously depended only on the workers who lived just beyond their doors.

Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker – humans and robots.

Tenere is a company that manufactures custom-made metal and plastic parts, mostly for the tech industry
Tenere is a company that manufactures custom-made metal and plastic parts, mostly for the tech industry
Annie Larson assembles parts on her line at Tenere, where she’s worked for six years. Although life in rural Wisconsin is tough, she has no plans to leave
Annie Larson assembles parts on her line at Tenere, where she’s worked for six years. Although life in rural Wisconsin is tough, she has no plans to leave

And at Tenere Inc, where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.

“Right here, okay?” the forklift driver yelled over the noise of the factory, and when a manager gave him a nod, he placed on the ground the boxes containing the two newest employees at Tenere, Robot 1 and Robot 2.

Tenere is a company that manufactures custom-made metal and plastic parts, mostly for the tech industry.

Five years earlier a private-equity firm acquired the company, expanded to Mexico, and ushered in what the company called “a new era of growth.”

In Wisconsin, where it has 550 employees, all non-union, wages started at $10.50 per hour for first shift and $13 per hour for overnight.

Counting health insurance and retirement benefits, even the lowest-paid worker was more expensive than the robots, which Tenere was leasing from a Nashville-based start-up, Hirebotics, for $15 per hour.

Hirebotics co-founders Matt Bush, left, and Rob Goldiez, right, work alongside a Tenere employee to set up the workstation for Robot 2. - PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Hirebotics co-founders Matt Bush, left, and Rob Goldiez, right, work alongside a Tenere employee to set up the workstation for Robot 2. – PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Hirebotics co-founder Matt Bush said that, before coming to Tenere, he’d been all across America installing robots at factories with similar hiring problems.

“Everybody is struggling to find people,” he said, and it was true even in a slice of western Wisconsin so attuned to the rhythms of shift work that one local bar held happy hour three times a day.

Inside the factory, there have been no major issues with quality control, plant managers say, only with filling its job openings.

In the front office, the general manager had nudged up wages for second- and third-shift workers, and was wondering if he’d have to do it again in the next few months.

Over in human resources, an administrator was saying that finding people was like trying to “climb Everest” – even after the company had loosened policies on hiring people with criminal records.

Even the new hires who were coaxed through the door often didn’t last long, with the warning signs beginning when they filed in for orientation in a second-floor office that overlooked the factory floor.

“How’s everybody doing?” said Matt Bader, as four just-hired workers walked in on a day when Robot 1 was being installed. “All good?”

“Maybe,” one person said.

Bader, who worked for a staffing agency that helped Tenere fill some of its positions, scanned the room. There was somebody in torn jeans.

Somebody who drove a school bus and needed summer work only. Somebody without a car who had hitched a ride.

Bader told them that once they started at Tenere they had to follow a few important rules, including one saying they couldn’t drink alcohol or use illegal substances at work.

“Apparently, we need to tell people that,” Bader said, not mentioning that just a few days before he had driven two employees to a medical centre for drug tests after managers suspected they’d shown up high.

One worker stifled a yawn. Another asked about getting personal calls during the shift. Another raised his hand.

“Yes?” Bader asked.

“Do you have any coffee?” the worker said.

“I don’t,” Bader said.

After an hour the workers were heading back to their cars, one saying that everything “sounds OK,” another saying the “pay sucks.”

Bader guessed that two of the four “wouldn’t last a week”, because often, he said, he knew within minutes who would last.

People who said they couldn’t work Saturdays. People who couldn’t work early mornings.

This was the mystery for him: So many people showing up, saying they were worried about rent or bills or supporting children, and yet they couldn’t hold down a job that could help them.

“I am so sick of hearing that,” Bader said. “And then they wonder why things are getting automated.”

The new robots had been made in Denmark, shipped to North Carolina, sold to engineers in Nashville, and then driven to Wisconsin.

The robots had no faces, no bodies, nothing to suggest anything but mechanical efficiency.

If anything, they looked similar to human arms, with silver limbs and powder blue elbows and charcoal-coloured wrists.

Each had been shipped with a corresponding box of wires and controls.

Each weighed 40.6 pounds. They had been specifically designed to replicate movements with such precision than any deviation was no greater than the thickness of a human hair – a skill particularly helpful for Robot 1, which had been brought in to perform one of the most repetitive jobs in the factory.

As the engineers prepared it for operation, Robot 1 had been bolted in front of a 10-foot-tall mechanical press.

It was rigged with safety sensors and programmed to make a three-foot path of motion, one that it would use to make part No 07123571.

More commonly, Tenere called this part the claw.

The purpose of the claw was to holster a disk drive.

Tenere had been making them for two years, at two separate mechanical presses, where workers fed six-by-seven inch pieces of flat aluminum into the machine, pressed two buttons simultaneously, and then extracted the metal – now bent at the edges.

Tenere’s workers were supposed to do this 1,760 times per shift.

Robot 1, almost programmed now, started trying it out. It snatched the flat metal from its left side, then swiveled back toward the press. It moved noiselessly.

It released the part into the mouth of the machine, and as soon as it withdrew, down came the press to shape the metal into a claw: Wallop.

The robot’s arm then retrieved the part, swiveling back to its left, and dropping the claw on a conveyor belt.

“How fast do you want it?” Hirebotics co-founder Rob Goldiez asked a plant manager supervising the installation.

First the robot was cycling every 20 seconds, and then every 14.9 seconds, and then every 10 seconds.

An engineer toggled with the settings, and later the speed bumped up again. A claw was being produced every 9.5 seconds. Or 379 every hour; 3,032 every shift; 9,096 every day.

“This motion,” Goldiez said, “will be repeatable for years.”

Bobby Campbell performs many of the same duties as Robot 1 at Tenere in Dresser, Wis
Bobby Campbell performs many of the same duties as Robot 1 at Tenere in Dresser, Wis

Some distance away, in front of another mechanical press, was a 51-year-old man named Bobby Campbell who had the same job as Robot 1.

He’d wound up with the position because of an accident: In February, he’d had too much to drink, tumbled off a deck at his daughter’s house, and broken his neck.

When he returned after three months, Tenere pulled him out of the laser department and put him on light duty.

Now, as the testing continued on a robot that he said “just looks like something you see in the damned dentist’s office,” Campbell was starting his 25th consecutive workday feeding claws to the machine.

He’d punched the same two buttons that activated the press 36,665 times.

“Beat that robot today,” Campbell’s supervisor said.

“Hah,” Campbell said, turning his back and settling in at his station, where there were 1,760 claws to make and eight hours until he drove home.

He set his canvas lunch container on a side table and oiled his mechanical press. He cut open a box of parts and placed the first flat piece of metal under the press.

A gauge on the side of the press kept count. Wallop. “1,” the counter said, and after Campbell had pressed the button 117 more times, there were seven hours to go.

Unlike the employees on the assembly line, Campbell worked alone. His press was off in a corner.

There was no foot traffic, nobody to talk to, nothing to look at. Campbell stopped his work and removed a container of pills.

He took a low-dose aspirin for his neck, another pill for high blood pressure.

He snacked on some peppers and homemade pickles, fed 393 more parts in the machine, and then it was time for lunch. Four hours to go.

“Monday,” he said with a little shrug. “I’ll pick it up after I get some fuel.”

Campbell had been at Tenere for three years. He earned $13.50 per hour.

He had a bad back, a shaved and scarred head, a tear duct that perpetually leaked after orbital surgery, and aging biceps that he showed off with sleeveless Harley-Davidson shirts.

He liked working at Tenere, he said. Good people. Good benefits.

Some days he hit his targets, other days he didn’t, but his supervisors never got on him, and the company had always been patient with him, even as he dealt with some personal problems.