A Sci-Fi Future

What's the place of robots in America's Distribution Center?

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Scary story last Sunday on 60 Minutes about all the things robots can do in manufacturing plants.

The little buggers were scooting like cockroaches all over the floor of a warehouse, faultlessly navigating traffic while carrying racks of stuff to humans who packed it into boxes to be shipped who knows where, maybe through Memphis.

A couple of smart guys from MIT and the head of the company that makes the robots told reporter Steve Kroft this could bring manufacturing back to the United States from overseas, because the robots "make" about $3.40 an hour, comparable to workers in Asia. A robot, one of them noted, has already kicked some Harvard and MIT ass on Jeopardy.

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Great. Just when Memphis joins the manufacturing party, humanoid employees take it on the chin from C-3PO. Tuesday was the media event at the new Electrolux plant on Presidents Island. Good news, for now at least: The humans are winning, but Nike and FedEx and Electrolux and all those warehouses off Lamar are the stage for this battle of the 21st century. I worked in warehouses for a couple weeks several years ago and can't remember a thing I did that could not have been done just as well by a machine.

The road from downtown and Interstate 55 to Electrolux takes you past the smokestacks of the steam plant, the signs for "Project 21," which is Mitsubishi Electric's future local offering, the fart smell of Ensley Bottoms, the yeasty olfactory relief of the grain operations, more smokestacks, then the gates of the Electrolux plant. The sprawling, low-slung buildings and parking lots (humans!) will be home to hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment.

Product starts rolling out in May. About 90 employees are already working, with 160 more to come later this year. Many of them came to the ceremony in their blue shirts and khakis to hear the good news. Something was cooking in the Electrolux ovens — rolls and sausages maybe? Anyway, it was the best-smelling media event of the year.

There were the obligatory introductions and remarks by politicos, including Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey from distant Bristol. The similarity to the automobile manufacturing process — a Southern business and manufacturing party at which Memphis and Shelby County are conspicuously absent — was mentioned at least half a dozen times. Then Jack Truong, CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances North America, and plant manager George Robbins took over for the tour.

"Electrolux is leading the revolution toward manufacturing in Memphis," Robbins said.

The equipment is highly automated, high-tech, and highly monitored to assure a level of consistency and reliability that is as desirable in your household appliances as it is in your car.

At Stops One and Two, the giant yellow robotic arms and hands put on a little show for us.

"You can see them running through their paces," Robbins said.

At Stop Three, more yellow robot arms were doing their thing in a cage. A humanoid with a pole was standing outside the cage. If that thing escapes, I thought, you're gonna need a bigger pole, buddy.

Stop Four, the assembly line, is not yet operational. The massive space is where most of the 1,200 U.S. employees will work when the plant reaches full production in five years. It is lit by skylights for their good health. So are the cafeteria, meeting rooms, and offices. The robots presumably couldn't care less.

I asked Robbins how many robots will be working on the line.

"None," he said. "The products are put together by people. We don't rule out robotics in the future, in sub-assembly especially."

Stop Five was quality control, where a sample of finished products will be put through hundreds of tests to make sure humans and robots have performed their tasks well.

Excellent news all around. Jobs and return on investment coming our way. If we can keep the robots from taking over our factories and warehouses, maybe we enlist a few of them to invade Nashville and bring us some more business.

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