Could robots replace America’s missing factory workers?

Saman Farid of San Francisco start-up Formic says one robot arm can do the work of up to eight people 

Joe Biden heralded a “manufacturing boom” in his state of the union speech earlier this month. He said that his policies had unleashed this boom and that companies, apparently, were rushing to build factories and bring home plants shipped overseas in previous decades. 

However, the more sobering reality is that not many people want to work in manufacturing because as of December 2022, 760,000 factory jobs remain unfilled, according to official figures. 

Every day, 10,000 baby-boomers retire — and those who replace them in industry often do not stay. Manufacturing has an annual staff turnover rate of 40%, meaning that every two and a half years, a typical facility’s entire workforce has to be rehired. 

Saman Farid ran Comet Labs before launching Formic two years ago. Comet Labs is a venture capital firm that specialised in robotics start-ups and he believes he has a solution to the manufacturing crisis. The 36-year-old entrepreneur has set up a “robot staffing agency” that brings in machines to do the jobs firms are struggling to fill. He has said that a single robot arm installed by his San Francisco start-up Formic can do the job of up to eight people. 

 RISE OF THE MACHINES  

Scare stories of machines replacing humans have done the rounds for decades — but in manufacturing, Farid argues, the need is pressing. The industry is running far below capacity due to the acute labour shortage. 

Jay Timmons, Head of the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group that represents more than 14,000 factory owners, said the biggest problem for “99.9%” of his members is finding people. 

Timmons said: “The typical factory we go to is 50 to 70% under-utilised, and it’s all because there’s just not enough labour.”  

Farid added: “For American industry to be competitive, the only answer is way, way more robots — and not like one here, one there, but how do we get hundreds of thousands of robots into factories?” 

For most companies, though, automation is hard. It entails a granular breakdown of every function inside a plant, deciding which of those jobs can be done by a machine and then spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a robot that may, or may not, work as expected. 

Farid knows this all too well. Before launching Formic two years ago, he ran Comet Labs, a venture capital firm that specialised in robotics start-ups. Time and again, companies he backed would struggle to sign up customers because the risks and complexity of automating their processes were too high. 

That pain point led, Farid said, to the birth of Formic, which has taken a “robot as a service” approach. It maps a company’s operations, figures out the tasks that are best suited to automation, and then installs a robot that is paid an hourly wage. If it fails to perform, Formic doesn’t get paid.  

Farid said: “The tech for very productive robots has existed now for ten years, but adoption is extremely low because there is so much risk and complexity. And so … the typical response of the factory owner has just been, ‘I can’t do this.’ ” 

The problem is not unique to America. The CBI’s employment trends survey last summer found that three-quarters of businesses struggled to fill vacant roles. Perhaps that robot really is coming for your job, after all. 

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