How Robots Are Helping A Furniture Shop Without Putting Workers Out Of Jobs

Jan 8, 2018
Originally published on January 8, 2018 7:35 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

As technology advances and robots learn new tricks like folding laundry, it makes people wonder, is my job safe? That is the name of an NPR series that looks at how tech is changing our work, and today, furniture making. It's based on old-fashioned handiwork, but a furniture maker in Massachusetts is using robots not to replace workers, but to help them. From member station WBUR in Boston, Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Josh Weissman is a furniture man. His dad started the company Moduform in 1976. It makes nightstands, beds, dressers, the whole deal for university dorms and hospitals.

JOSH WEISSMAN: Back in the '80s and '90s there was a lot of furniture manufacturing done in north central Massachusetts. So we had craftspeople because in this neck of the woods, in north central Massachusetts, it was a haven for furniture.

KHALID: But Weissman says times have changed. People don't want to stand on a production floor for eight to 10 hours a day picking up a piece of wood and putting it through a sanding machine.

WEISSMAN: When we put a job ad out there, we're lucky if we put an ad out there if we get five or six responses.

KHALID: One day in the summer of 2016, Weissman had this backlog of customer orders to fill, and he was getting really worried. He turned on his computer and noticed a news blurb about a company called Rethink Robotics. It's the brainchild of Rodney Brooks, the man who for years had led the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT.

RODNEY BROOKS: Our robots do simple, repetitive tasks.

KHALID: I meet Brooks at his company's swanky warehouse office in Boston, where dozens of engineers are testing out a robotic arm that you can program and wheel around.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHIRRING)

KHALID: That sound is the robot picking up a circuit board and putting it down again and again. That's what it's good at.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHIRRING)

WEISSMAN: This is the original factory, right? So...

KHALID: Back at the furniture company, Weissman takes me to see the Rethink robot he bought. It's got four grippers on a red arm that swivels to put together a dresser drawer.

WEISSMAN: It's picking the drawer front up and it's feeding it into the machine that's actually cutting and routing those dovetails.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW BUZZING)

KHALID: That noise is the wood getting cut. In the past, you would have had somebody feeding the machine by hand, someone like Brandon Correia.

BRANDON CORREIA: I started working here over the summer - just a plain factory worker. Like, you know, sometimes I would work this. Sometimes I would be assembling.

KHALID: So you've done this job by hand.

CORREIA: Yeah.

KHALID: How was it?

CORREIA: It's boring. It gets very old very quickly.

KHALID: When Moduform brought this robot in, Correia was asked to set it up.

CORREIA: This was really the first time I've ever tried to program anything like this.

KHALID: He says it was hard. But now he's figured out how to set different programs for different drawer sizes. He's essentially become the robot's supervisor.

CORREIA: So I'll come back after a half hour, see if it's working, make sure everything's going OK. I'll come back when it's done and make sure there were no errors.

KHALID: Correia says this one robot has already changed his job. It frees him up to do other work like managing customer orders. He says all this talk about robots taking jobs feels overblown.

CORREIA: There is still some sort of human that sets up the robot. You know, could we have three of these and have one person program all three and then we don't need as many workers? I could see that. But the way they are now, they're not foolproof.

KHALID: Correia is kind of a rarity at Moduform. He's just 24. The average worker here is over 50. And that worries the company's owner, Josh Weissman. He's hoping that maybe the chance to use computer skills and robots will make this old-school job more attractive to young workers. For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.