There’s some good news coming for people concerned over the decades long trend of manufacturing jobs moving to China and other countries in Asia. Adidas, one of the world’s larger manufacturers of footwear, shut down their manufacturing facilities in Germany back in the nineties and moved the entire operation to lands where labor was cheaper. (The term “slave wages” comes to mind.) But now they are preparing to reopen their facilities in Germany and open a plant in the United States as well. Yay!

As with any good news bad news story, this one comes with a caveat: the factory will be operated almost entirely by robots, so there’s no need to update your resume just yet. (The Guardian)

Adidas, the German maker of sportswear and equipment, has announced it will start marketing its first series of shoes manufactured by robots in Germany from 2017.

More than 20 years after Adidas ceased production activities in Germany and moved them to Asia, chief executive Herbert Hainer unveiled to the press the group’s new prototype “Speedfactory” in Ansbach, southern Germany.

The 4,600-square-metre plant is still being built but Adidas opened it to the press, pledging to automate shoe production – which is currently done mostly by hand in Asia – and enable the shoes to be made more quickly and closer to its sales outlets.

Nike is planning a similar move and it may also include facilities in the United States.

One of the radio reports I listened to described the level of automation that Adidas has achieved with their “Speedfactory” concept and it’s pretty amazing. Once the raw materials are fed into some input hoppers, there’s essentially no human involvement aside from inspections (which can be done remotely via cameras) until the finished product is boxed up and ready to go. The factory floor can remain silent, free from all that annoying chatter and sneezing and other biological noises and distractions caused by boring old human beings. There’s no need to worry about shift changes or lunch breaks, holidays or vacation time. The robots operate 24/7 until the quota is met. It’s a non-worker paradise, folks.

It’s not just shoes, either. The cheap labor haven of China is slowly but surely giving way to the “no labor” movement which can be set up closer to the target market for the products, reducing shipping costs and import regulatory issues. Foxconn, a major electronics manufacturer which supplies components to Apple, retooled it’s manufacturing hub in Jiangsu province, China, eliminating 60,000 jobs in a single day when it was announced. The facility is now run essentially by robots for all the day to day manufacturing work. That represented more than a third of their massive work force wiped out and sent home all at once.

I suppose these technological advancements were inevitable, and they will provide at least some jobs in Europe and the United States, at least for a time. Somebody has to initially build or re-tool the factories, install the machinery and maintain the facilities. And there will be jobs for the people who install, repair and maintain the robots, but that’s obviously a tiny number of openings compared to a human driven labor force producing the products. So is Adidas looking to completely replace people? They say that’s not the case… for now.

Hainer insisted the factories would not immediately replace the work of sub-contractors in Asia. “Our goal is not full automatisation,” said Gerd Manz, head of innovation and technology.

They can make that claim all they like while working on the transition, but let’s be honest here. Particularly when there’s a huge push to raise labor rates taking place, no company is going to keep paying people to do manufacturing work when the technology has arrived to replace them. If the products turn out to be of equal or greater quality and people are still buying them, the days of people producing footwear for Adidas and Nike are essentially over.

It’s the dawn of the 21st century, folks. I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords. (In the hope that they don’t come up with robot bloggers any time soon.)

StopRobots