Pearl River We all wonder what the world of life and work is going to look like at the end of this 2020 Great Depression under the helm of the modern-day Herbert Hoover. Just as an aside, perhaps every one-hundred years Americans need to be reminded the hard way that electing a businessman is a big, whooping mistake! Of course, none of us really know, but the takeaways from this disaster are starting to be clearer.
One thing that I think is probably a very safe bet is that the robots are going to be coming by the millions, especially in big time manufacturing. They don’t catch viruses. They could care less about social spacing. They are already there in huge numbers, and they and their management overlords will be calling for their duplicates. Companies in serious manufacturing are undoubtedly having Zoom calls now and crunching the numbers on the retrofit costs of preparing to reopen more safely now versus the cost of going large on more robots as soon as possible in order to not have to shutdown the next time a virus comes, since we all now know, if we didn’t before, that it’s just a matter of time before the next one arrives.
I listened to the Sheriff of Black Hawk County in Iowa being interviewed by a local public radio station in that area. The huge Waterloo Tyson pork packing plant in his area has thousands of workers. He and his team inspected the plant in March, when there was no doubt that the coronavirus was among us. They were dumbstruck by how tightly packed the workers were on the line and how little Tyson had done to prepare for the pandemic. A month later the plant was closed and there were more than 1000 confirmed cases of covid-19 among the workforce. Tyson accounted for 90% of the cases in Black Hawk County. The sheriff, the union, and Tyson are now reopening and in the latest inspection that are touting themselves as best-in-class with plexiglass shields everywhere, sanitizer stations all over, and more. We can call that progress, and we should.
At the same time, it is easy to see the writing on the wall. Weeks with the plant closed. Big expenditures made on health and safety protection. A largely immigrant workforce in a country that is trying to restrict immigration any way it can. If there isn’t a robot that can do a lot of this kind of work, you know Tyson is looking for one, and working the calculator to establish that on the long turn it’s easier to maintain a robot than to keep workers on the line.
They aren’t alone. Even on the domestic side, I would bet robo-cleaners like Romba and anything else that can replace cleaners will increase. Hospitals will be looking to automate wherever they can. More restaurants, coffeeshops, and food service won’t be opening without takeout windows. You have to wonder if automats won’t make a comeback, where you reach into a glass window for your whatever. Maybe we will be like Japan with multi-purpose vending machines everywhere.
The one thing that will be certain is that business will be working overtime after the pandemic to figure out a way to replace labor and use fewer workers. Getting out of this depression could be harder when business sees the solution as fewer jobs.