This Isn’t the Terminator: Despite German Death, Most Swear By Manufacturing Robots

It was momentarily tempting to headline this as killer robots strike back, but the tragedy of the situation encourages us to take a more responsible line in reporting the death of a 22-year old contract worker in a Volkswagen factory near Kassel, Germany, this week.

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Apparently, the worker was installing a robot on the production line when an arm activated and struck him across the chest pinning him to a metal plate. He later died as a result of his injuries. The fatality has sparked a debate in Germany, not least because there is an ongoing concern about machines replacing workers and the loss of jobs, a worry as old as the invention of the spinning machine.

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Manufacturing robots look like this. Image courtesy of MX3D.

In reality, Germany, along with many advanced economies, has little alternative. As the baby boom generation declines there just aren’t enough workers and salary levels rise to the point where it’s only economic to manufacture at home if machines, robots, are used. The same reason why France is more productive than the UK, (yes I know it’s hard to believe, isn’t it?) because salaries are higher forcing firms to invest in automation.

The Robots are Safer, We Swear

On the more specific worry of robot safety, in practice the addition of robots has improved worker safety. A Financial Times article states robot-related fatalities are rare in western production plants as heavy robots are kept behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans.

Because this incident was a new install, the contractor was standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred. A second employee was outside the cage and was unharmed. Indeed, fatality rates in manufacturing are below the average for the economy as a whole, and have been falling as automation has increased in both Europe and the US.

VISTA

They don’t look like this. The Terminator Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The FT reports there were 2.1 fatal injuries for every 100,000 full-time equivalent employees in manufacturing in the US in 2013, down from 2.7 in 2006. In the transportation equipment industry, the fatality rate was just 0.9 per 100,000 employees, according to US government data.

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