Save for maybe health care and fast food, no sector of the Detroit economy has been spared. Driving in from the airport, you cruise down broad boulevards past gracious brick four- and five-bedroom homes, and every other one is boarded up with weeds sprouting from the front walk. The scene reminds me of New Orleans after Katrina, although I'm not sure that in terms of future prospects and the prevailing sense of doom that hangs over the place, Detroit doesn't have it worse.
That's what I find so fascinating about Pete Voelzke. An intelligent sandy-haired 41-year-old married father of two, Pete is at the eye of the economic storm that has leveled his city.
Pete's a robotics engineer, a designer and programmer of the humanoids that perform a much larger percentage of the automobile manufacturing in this country than most people realize. His most recent job before he got laid off two months ago was at a Japanese-owned company called Nachi, whose suburban Detroit plant builds massive 8- to 10-foot-tall robots wielding 200-pound welding guns that work the line for the Big Three automakers and their suppliers. Before that he was with Pico (now Comau), known as an "integrator," which takes whole armies of robots 60-strong and adds software and hardware to get them to work together as a tightly knit robot manufacturing force.
Detroit may build lousy, overpriced cars, but they apparently make some awesome robots. "The biggest problem with American cars are the health care and pension costs for retirees, and the fact that the Big Three squeezed their suppliers to the point the suppliers started cutting corners on components," explains Pete. "But the actual manufacturing processes here are state of the art. The advancements in robotics over the past few years, particularly in vision, really are amazing. Robots can see in 3D now, so we now have robots that can reach into a bin filled with different types of gears or axels and pick out the exact part they need to install in the car. We've got synchronized teams of robots where one can pull the outer skin of a trunk hood off a rack and turn it just so while another coats it with sealant and another attaches the reinforcement to the underside and another throws some welds on there to hold the whole thing together."
Each of those functions he describes, of course, was once performed by a human autoworker. It's all very Battlestar Galactica. For many years, the robots helped put autoworkers out of work, but now that the industry has all but collapsed, the robots and their robot makers are themselves becoming casualties of the carnage. At one time Pete's old employer Comau had 5,000 people programming and outfitting skin jobs. After the latest layoffs in May, that figure is down to less than 2,000. At the Nachi Michigan plant, the workforce has shrunk from 100 to less than 30.
But as you'll recall from the show, this is when things to start to get really interesting, when the robots and their makers regroup and evolve the machines in ways the humans never imagined. See, all those robots now rotting away in the Motor City have the capability, with just a little bit of tweaking by guys like Pete, to transform thousands of companies across dozens of industries, and, as Pete plots his own survival, that's exactly what he intends to do.
"We started doing some of it at Nachi. There are a bunch of companies now using robots in packaging to do simple things like stack boxes on a pallet and wrap them in cellophane. We had another client that had us build robots to fry tempura shrimp. But there are so many other companies that could benefit from these things. I remember we talked to another company that makes trampolines. Once they finish the trampolines they get packed in boxes that weigh 300 pounds. They have two guys now grunting and straining to lift each of those boxes and load them onto a truck. It would be so much easier to have a robot do it."
Pete's idea is to start a consulting firm specializing in making converts out of the unroboticized. He's got a buddy with a small robot-related training firm (they're sort of a "geek squad" for robot owners) who he's talking to about branching out and partnering with him in his robot takeover of American industry.
There's just one problem with the plan. "A lot of times we'd talk to a new client about all we could do for them, and they'd get it, but then they'd be like, 'Oh, well, we don't want to lay off the guys doing that now. Maybe we shouldn't do this."
For those who in the epochal battle between man and machines happen to be rooting for the humans that may come as reassuring news. But it's not what you want to hear if you're an out-of-work robotics engineer trying to save your own little corner of humankind.
Personally, I'm rooting for Pete. As we learned on Battlestar, the Cylons weren't all bad in the end. And, besides, we humans have made such a mess of things, maybe it's time to let a few more robots have a try.