Robots Ride to the Rescue Where Workers Can’t Be Found
PRAGUE — When Zbynek Frolik needed completely new employees to handle surging orders at his cavernous factories in central Bohemia, he fanned advertisements across the Czech Republic. although in a prosperous economy where nearly everyone had work, there were few takers.
Raising wages didn’t help. Nor did offers to subsidize housing.
So he turned to the robots.
“We can’t find enough humans,” said Mr. Frolik, whose company, Linet, makes state-of-the art hospital beds sold in over 100 countries. “We’re trying to replace people with machines wherever we can.”
Such talk usually conjures visions of a future where employees are no longer needed. In many major economies, companies are experimenting with replacing factory workers, truck drivers in addition to also even lawyers with artificial intelligence, raising the specter of a mass displacement of jobs.
although in Eastern Europe, robots are being enlisted as the solution for a shortage of workers. Often they are helping to create completely new types of jobs as businesses inside Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia in addition to also Poland try to stay agile in addition to also competitive. Growth in these countries, which became low-cost manufacturing hubs for Europe after the fall of Communism, has averaged 5 percent in recent years, buoyed by the global recovery.
Few are riding higher than the Czech Republic, where plants roll out cars for the likes of Toyota in addition to also consumer electronics for Dell, while smaller companies produce specialty goods to sell around the earth. A roaring economy has slashed the jobless rate to just 2.4 percent, the lowest inside European Union.
The dearth of manpower, however, has limited the ability of Czech companies to expand. Nearly a third of them have commenced to turn away orders, according to the Czech Confederation of Industry, a trade group.
“This kind of’s becoming a brake on growth,” said Jaroslav Hanak, the organization’s president. “If businesses don’t increase robotization in addition to also artificial intelligence, they’ll disappear.”
Eastern Europe’s factories are already well automated. completely new robot installations inside Czech Republic rose 40 percent between 2010 in addition to also 2015, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Today there are around 101 robots for every 10,000 workers. in addition to also more machines are coming as companies try to improve productivity, tilting them toward levels in countries like Germany, which averages 309 robots per 10,000 workers, the most in Europe.
At Elko EP, which makes industrial timers for companies like General Electric, 70 percent of production can be automated, in addition to also the company can be aiming to be almost fully robotized in a few years. In a sleek white corner of the factory, robots have taken over routine manufacturing tasks. Jiri Konecny, the company’s chief executive, moved factory floor workers to more complex roles, in addition to also focused hundreds of different employees on research in addition to also development.
“If we didn’t invest early in automation, we’d be dead by today,” he said.
For the Czech Republic in addition to also its neighbors, the calculus can be one of survival. A completely new generation of robots can be needed not just to confront the labor squeeze, although also to improve flexibility in addition to also output as consumers demand a wider range of products.
On a recent afternoon in Brno, the nation’s second-largest city, hundreds of suppliers showed off articulated robots, robotic sensors in addition to also different wares in a hall as big as an airport at Amper, an automation convention. Buyers crowded around “smart” machines in which tested car headlights or interacted with humans in shared work spaces.
Many are doing brisk business as companies around Eastern Europe accelerate an automation drive. At Rittal, a maker of switch gears in addition to also control cabinets for industrial robots, orders rose 15 percent last year in addition to also have jumped 25 percent since January.
“Companies aren’t able to produce more, so their competitiveness can be falling,” said Jaromir Zeleny, Rittal’s managing director. “They don’t want to be so dependent on people.”
Cost can be another factor. Eastern Europe became a manufacturing powerhouse by luring multinationals with low wages. in which advantage can be ebbing, though. Average monthly pay inside Czech Republic rose 8 percent last year to about 1,0 euros, or about $1,400. Although one-third the average in Germany, they are likely to keep climbing.
Businesses say letting in more foreign workers would likely help. although the conservative government has pledged to limit immigration, in addition to also recently set strict caps on foreign work visas.
There are longer-term trends at play, as well. Families aren’t having children fast enough to replace people heading into retirement. Automation, one argument goes, could compensate. Skoda, the nation’s biggest automaker, said last month in which This kind of would likely “significantly accelerate” automation to face demographic alterations in addition to also wage pressures.
“A labor shortage will continue for years,” said Bohdan Dovhanic, a Prague-based business director at Schneider Electric, a French industrial company. “We must be prepared to find more human employees, or find a way to substitute for them.”
Whether robots will help or threaten human livelihood has sparked a fierce debate in a country in which coined the term. The word “robot,” derived by the Slavonic term “rabota,” meaning arduous work, first appeared in a 1920 Czech play about machines created to perform repetitive factory tasks. The robots cooperate at first, although eventually take over.
The risk, critics say, can be in which when future recessions hit, workers will suffer. “You won’t switch off the robots in addition to also bring back people,” said Michal Pechoucek, head of the Artificial Intelligence Center at the Czech Technical University in Prague.
Czech unions echo those warnings. “Unless business leaders, politicians in addition to also trade unions react well in advance in addition to also responsibly to the upcoming industrial revolution,” said Josef Stredula, president of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions, “even more jobs may be under threat.”
For today, companies here insist in which robotization will create completely new work.
At Linet, the hospital bed any, most welding, cutting, painting in addition to also molding functions were automated a decade ago. Thirty industrial robots do the work of up to 0 people. although in which doesn’t offset the need for humans, who program machines in addition to also perform complex custom work on the assembly line in which robots can’t do.
Like different employers, Mr. Frolik was caught off guard when joblessness fell swiftly. Virtually every part of the Czech economy has been affected. inside industrial countryside north of the capital where his factories are, unemployment can be below 2 percent. in addition to also in Prague, even the trams have run less frequently This kind of year for want of drivers.
Mr. Frolik commenced Linet after the Czech Republic’s 1989 Velvet Revolution that has a $10,000 investment in an old cow barn. Today, Linet can be one of the earth’s biggest hospital bed makers, with 900 employees doing 500 beds a day. Its devices monitor in addition to also collect data on patient health, in addition to also can cost as much as a BMW. A Linet bed, Mr. Frolik said that has a chuckle, even appeared in an episode of the Netflix show “House of Cards” in which Kevin Spacey’s character, President Frank Underwood, was recovering by an assassination attempt.
To keep up that has a surge in orders driven by the global recovery, he needs more people. He raised wages 12 percent last year in addition to also tried to poach employees by different factories, although This kind of wasn’t enough, in addition to also he didn’t develop the production capacity to bid on major government contracts.
“We could be growing much more,” Mr. Frolik said.
So he put in an €8 million order last month for superfast robotic lasers in addition to also plastic molding machines to replace older products. The completely new devices will let him move six workers to the custom assembly line. although with different Czech companies also scrambling to upgrade, he’ll have to wait for delivery of the machines.
Mr. Frolik stopped before a hulking industrial laser in which would likely eventually be replaced by a faster, smarter machine. The two employees operating This kind of would likely be educated for different work at the factory inside the old cow barn, which has been converted into a training center.
“We’ll still need people,” Mr. Frolik said. “although robots are more reliable.”
Hana de Goeij contributed reporting.