The robots are coming, this time to rural Wisconsin
BY CHICO HARLAN The Washington Post
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 labeled “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 earplugs. 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 modernize, but also because reliable humans had become so hard to find. It was part of a labor 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.
SIn 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. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.
S“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-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 center for drug tests after managers suspected they’d shown up high.
COne 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 okay,” 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-colored 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 6-by-7 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.
S“This motion,” Goldiez said, “will be repeatable for years.”
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.
She lived 31 miles and 40 minutes away, provided he didn’t stop. The problem was, sometimes he did. Along the drive home there were a dozen gas stations and minimarts selling beer, and Campbell said he couldn’t figure out why some days he would turn in. He’d tried everything he could think of to stop himself. Calling his daughters, calling his wife. Turning up the music and listening to Rod Stewart. He’d been to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he said. He’d spent 28 days at a treatment center. He’d looked for jobs that would cut down on the commute. He’d faced a family intervention where the whole family read him letters, as he sat there feeling like what he called a “kindergartner.”
Sometimes, Campbell said, he almost thought he was through the worst — sober for weeks at a time — but then came Saturday, when he was supposed to work an eight-hour shift and instead clocked out after three hours, stopping on the way home and downing a 12-pack of beer before sundown. Then came Sunday, another 12 beers out on the lake. Now it was Monday, and Campbell said he was sure he’d be okay if he could just get home. There, his wife only allowed him to have nonalcoholic beers. But that was 31 miles away. “Just the uncertainty,” Campbell said, and he tried not to think about it, with the lunch break over, and 3 hours and 40 minutes to go.
He stepped onto the floor pad in front of the press and got back to work. A box of flat metal pieces was to his left, a hopper of finished claws sat on his right, and Campbell’s hands moved in a rhythm, grabbing and inserting. “As long as I’ve got parts in front of me, I’m all right,” he said. Twenty minutes without looking up. Then 40. Then nearly 60. The gauge said 912.
“All right,” Campbell said, when there was an hour left to go, still pressing the buttons.
He hummed a song. He whistled. He fed 11 pieces of metal to the machine in a minute, and then 13, then nine.
His eyes darted from left to right. He nodded his head.
The press’s clutch was hissing and exhaling, hissing and exhaling, and Campbell added a last pump of oil to the machine with 15 minutes to go. Out came a few more parts, and he fed them into the hopper, checked the gauge, and shrugged. “Not so bad,” he said.
Time to go home. He had punched the buttons another 1,376 times, 384 shy of his target, and now he got in the car.
Robot 2 had a different job than Robot 1. It was to be part of a team — the assembly line. The team worked along a 70-foot row of tables lined with workstations that were always at least a few workers shy, where employees snapped and riveted metal pieces, building silver, rectangular containers. Each container, by the time it reached the last assembly workstation, was outfitted with either 13 or 15 miniature drawer slots. It was the job of the third-to-last worker on the line to fill each with a claw. That would become the sole task of Robot 2, one that it started to test out after days of programming and setup.
The claws arrived at Robot 2’s station on a conveyor belt. From there, the robot made a three-foot motion of its own. Grabbing the claw with its gripper. Swiveling 90 degrees. Reaching its arm toward the container. And then, inserting the claw into one of the drawer slots with an intricate push: forward 80 millimeters, down five millimeters, forward another 20 millimeters, up eight millimeters, forward another 12.
“A delicate move,” Bush said.
One that Robot 2 would be able to make every seven seconds once it joined the line.
Days earlier, Annie Larson, the woman who would work alongside Robot 2, had been at home, the end of another shift, laid out in a recliner sipping a Mountain Dew mixed with what she described as the cheapest vodka she could find. There’d been six years at Tenere of days like these. Trying to unwind. Alone in her one-bedroom apartment. Bedtime at 9. Alarm at 5:40 a.m. Out the door at 6:20. Into her old Chevy. Six miles up the street.
S Then into the Tenere parking lot, clocking in just before 7, the next day of trying to keep pace. Except this time, as a forklift came to a stop nearby, she saw four boxes being dropped off at the end of the line.
“What in the hell?” she thought.
Her line supervisor, Tom Johannsen, had told workers a few weeks earlier the robots were coming. But he hadn’t said when they would arrive, or what exactly they would do. He hadn’t described how they would look. He’d just said nobody was losing their jobs, and not to worry, and that Tenere was “supplementing some of the people we can’t find.”
Now, though, the boxes were being opened up, wires everywhere, and Larson started to worry. The machines looked too complicated. Maybe they’d break down. Maybe they couldn’t keep pace. Maybe they’d be just one more problem at the factory, and already, their boxes were getting in the way. Only six people were on the line, which meant Larson was leapfrogging from one workstation to the next, trying to do the work of two or three. She could feel everybody falling behind. She nearly tripped over a floor mat that had buckled to make space for the robot. Larson turned to one of the robot engineers and said, “We have no room over here. It sucks.” When the end-of-the-shift buzzer sounded, the line had made 32 fewer containers than it was supposed to, and that night, Larson said, she had more drinks than her usual one or two.
But then came the next day: Back again, on time. Always on time. Larson was one of the steadiest parts of an assembly team in which so many other workers had lasted for weeks or months. “My line,” Larson called it. Her supervisor called her “old school.” A manager called her “no nonsense.” Others moaned about the job during lunchtime breaks. Larson, wanting no part of that, pulled up a stool to the assembly line every day and ate by herself.
“If the job is that bad, go!” she said.
She was 48, and she had no plans to leave. Rural Wisconsin was tough, but so what; she couldn’t start over. Her roots were here. Her mother lived four blocks away. Her father lived six blocks away. Her son, daughter and grandchild were all within 15 miles. Larson couldn’t afford vacations or new clothing, but she paid every bill on time: $545 for rent, $33 for electric — every amount and due date programmed into her phone.
But it was the numbers at work that had been leaving her feeling more drained than usual lately. The team felt as if it was forever in catch-up mode. She and her co-workers were supposed to complete 2,250 containers per week. But with so many jobs unfilled, they missed the mark by 170 the week before the robots arrived. They were off 130 the week prior. The line got a pep talk from the supervisor, Johannsen, who said he could notice Larson in particular “getting frustrated.”
“Are there any claws in that box?” Larson said now, motioning across a table.
Another worker checked. “No.”
“Ugh,” Larson said, and she grabbed the empty box and darted down the line, pony tail bobbing. She returned 15 seconds later with an overflowing pile of claws. “Here,” she said, dropping the box on an assembly line table. She reached over to the pile of containers and began filling them. Fifteen claws. Then 30. Her shirt was darkened with sweat. Forty-five claws. Sixty.
“You’re power-hauling,” another worker said.
Her co-workers were always changing. For now, they were a Linda, another Linda, a Kevin, a Sarah, a Miah, a Valerie and a Matt. Valerie was a good worker, Larson said, and so was one of the Lindas. But a few of the others struggled to keep pace. Larson told them sometimes how they could be more efficient in their jobs. How they could line up rivets in parallel rows, for instance. But who was paying attention?
“There’s no caring,” Larson said. “No pride.”
Friday now, and Larson was tired. There was one more shift before the weekend, but this time, when she showed up for work, she saw something different at the end of the line. The robots no longer looked like a mess. Their wires had been tucked into control boxes. Their stations had been swept clean. They were surrounded by new conveyor belts.
“They’re pretty,” she said, and several hours later, mid-shift, she noticed an employee who’d missed the last few weeks with knee surgery wander over, stopping at the robot.
“Ohh,” the employee said, “they’re taking somebody’s job.”
“No, they’re not,” she said.
She was surprised by her response. That she had come to the robot’s defense. But then she looked at what the robot was going to do: Put a claw in the slot. Put another claw in the slot. Put another claw in the slot.
“It’s not a good job for a person to have anyway,” she said.
The end-of-the-shift buzzer sounded, and Larson got back into her car. Then back into the recliner, where she poured her drink and tried to think about how the assembly line was going to change. Maybe the robots would actually help. Maybe the numbers would get better. Maybe her next problem would be too many humans and not enough robots.
“Me and Val and 12 robots,” Larson said. “I would be happy with that.”
Eight days after arriving in boxes, the robots’ first official day of work had arrived. In between the end of the overnight shift and the start of the first shift, the engineers did a last run-through and then picked up the touch screens that controlled the robots. Robot 1 began grabbing the metal rectangles, feeding them into the mechanical press, then extracting them as claws. Robot 2 began swiveling and grabbing the claws, placing them into a few containers that had been assembled overnight. The robots were six feet apart from one another, at stations producing the only noise in an otherwise quiet factory. Every 9.5 seconds: the wallop of the press. And then, the snapping of a claw sliding into a slot.
And then, the 7 a.m. buzzer to start the day.
In came the workers, some of whom took a moment to stand near the robots and watch.
“It’s pretty amazing,” one said.
“Gosh, it doesn’t take breaks,” another said.
“Can I smack it if I need to?” Larson asked, and then she said, “Okay, let’s go.”
The people took their stations. In one corner, Robot 1 was pounding out claws, laying them on a conveyor belt. Along a half-empty row of workstations, six people were constructing containers. At the end of that row, Robot 2 was filling those containers with claws. And at the other side of the factory, Campbell was stamping out claws the old way, feeding the metal and pressing the buttons, 320 in the first hour, even as he pulled a tissue out of his pocket every few minutes to dab his leaky eye.
“This machine is getting hot, I’m working it so hard,” Campbell said.
At the assembly line, Larson and the others were moving fast because they needed to. Robot 2 was filling a container with claws every 1 1/2 minutes, and the humans could barely keep pace. They shoveled 10 containers down the line, and Robot 2 filled them with claws. For a minute, as more containers were being riveted together, the robot sat idle.
“We have to keep leapfrogging,” Larson shouted. “The robot needs some work.”
Within an hour, the workers of the first shift had filled a shipping box with finished containers — the first batch made by both humans and robots. Then came a second box, and then a third, and then a buzzer sounded for a break. The work paused, and a manager, Ed Moryn, grabbed the Hirebotics engineers and asked them to follow.
He took them through a passageway and into another building, stopping at two more workstations where he said the company needed help. A press brake job. An assembly job. “Can we do these?” Moryn asked. The engineers studied the work areas for 15 minutes, took some measurements, and two days later offered Tenere one version of a solution for a company trying to fill 132 openings. Tenere looked at the offer and signed the paperwork. In September, the engineers would be coming back, arriving this time with the boxes holding Robot 3 and Robot 4.