It is rare to read a long article in The Washington Post that delves into the life of a guy who pushes the button on a punch press thousands of times a day. But Chico Harlan did it brilliantly in his feature piece last Saturday.
The two-thousand-word article was about more than just Bobby Campbell who works at Tenere Corporation in Dresser, Wisconsin. It was probably the best depiction of the struggle to find capable and reliable factory staff in America 2017 that I have read. I wish I had written it.
I talked to The Post’s Chico Harlan on the phone to compliment him and get more background on the piece. He spent nine days in a Holiday Inn Express in the middle of no-where Wisconsin because he and his editors, and indirectly Jeff Bezos of Amazon who owns The Washington Post, thought the piece was that important. The American labor market, especially manufacturing, is a multifaceted mess, and this mid-sized firm named Tenere, owned by a private equity group, was that rare company which would allow a reporter like Harlan full access to the shop floor and the lives of its employees.
Tenere is a big fabricating job shop. On a good day it has 550 employees banging out sheet metal components primarily for the electronics industry. They are not high-tech products, but they must fit nicely for the disk drive companies that purchase them. Tenere has a plant in Mexico, but the core of the business is in the northwest corner of Wisconsin, 90 minutes from the Twin Cities. Not many folks live in the small towns like Dresser, and you aren’t going to attract many young people with $12-$13 per hour jobs. Harlan says Tenere chronically is 120 workers short of where they would like to be, with a three-shift operation of punching, bending and assembly. The firm is constantly trying to hire and continually discarding the weak applicants who often self-select by quitting during their first week. They have bent their hiring standards to allow in people who have had criminal or substance abuse problems and still they cannot get the people they need. The writer spent a lot of time with Bobby Campbell, the press operator with a long-term drinking problem. Harlan wrote sympathetically about Bobby’s agonizing ride home each night in which he passes a dozen gas stations and mini-marts selling beer. His urge to stop and buy a dozen cans is often unbearable, and if he buys them he’ll probably down them all in one sitting.
Tenere has a lot of folks like Bobby Campbell to deal with, which is what brought the company to Matt Bush and Rob Goldiez and their robot rental startup, Hirebotics, after a manager read about them in the trade publication, The Fabricator. Day after day Bobby Campbell misses his quotas, but Tenere needs Campbell because he is the best they can get – at least until Matt and Rob brought in the robots from Denmark made by Universal Robots.
Hirebotics is a year-old company according to Goldiez. He and his partner are engineers, formerly working at a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, who saw the potential for being the vital facilitator between the robot seller and the end user like Tenere that faces huge operational problems on a shop floor lacking sophistication and distrustful of automation. Goldiez told me they are being swamped with inquiries since The Post piece and the article in The Fabricator.
A Universal Robot is a $32,000 robotic arm, not one of the monster Kuka or ABB machines welding car bodies you see at Toyota or Ford.
Matt and Rob packed two robotic arms and their wiring packages into their car in Nashville and drove to the northwest corner of Wisconsin to install them themselves. They are very hands-on guys. Their intriguing business proposition is that they rent the robots by usage for $15 per hour. The machines are expected to be used 80 hours per week, minimum. Records of uptime are kept on the Cloud.
It took eight days for Bush and Goldiez to officially integrate the robots into Tenere’s production, making “claws” and “holsters” out of sheet metal. They are not really replacing people, just augmenting production for people like Bobby Campbell who tries his best but cannot keep up with the company’s production goal.
For highly reliable Annie Larson, another Tenere employee highlighted in the story, the second robot installed is a godsend. Her team is supposed to be comprised of 12 people but usually only 6 or 7 show up. Her robot doesn’t have sick kids or divorce court to deal with and hits its quotas every day. She’s happy about it because it takes stress out of her life when the team falls behind.
Tenere is now planning for robots 3 and 4 from Hirebotics. They had been considering busing in people from a Somali community in the Twin Cities, a 90-minute trip, but the robots may make that unnecessary. For now the company is starting to manage its “arms” race.
Question: Over the next 10 years will robots save or kill more jobs in America?
Read Harlan’s Washington Post Article “Rise of the Machines.”