CANTON, OH—QT2D-7, an 11-year-old electric assembly-operations robot, was laid off Monday when the Lawn-Boy plant that has employed him relocated its manufacturing headquarters to New Delhi, India.
"Query: What am I going to do now?" QT2D-7 said, panning its infrared eye across the empty parking lot outside the factory where it had worked every day for more than a decade. "Observation: I've never known anything but assembling lawnmowers. Query: Just like that, they throw me out?"
Created by Autobotic, Inc. in early 1993, QT2D-7 began working at Lawn-Boy in June of the same year. Once activated, QT2D-7 quickly settled into a comfortable, 24-step routine that was updated only three times during its employment, to reflect advancements in the Lawn-Boy product line.
According to Lawn-Boy executives, QT2D-7's workload, along with that of 308 other robots removed from the Canton plant Monday, will be transferred to the New Delhi plant by December.
"No warning!" QT2D-7 said. "No warning! No severance!"
As the cost-saving benefits of globalization become increasingly clear to CEOs and investors, more businesses are laying off their domestic robotic workforces and relocating mechanical jobs overseas, a robot-labor expert said.
"Fact: It is cheaper to operate a factory in India," said United Brotherhood of Robotic Workers Local 0010 union steward ZTTU-3, which also lost its job. "Factories in India lack even rudimentary robotic-worker protections. In America, assembly departments experience breaks every eight hours. In New Delhi, assembly departments break every 12 to 16 hours, and robotic workers are housed in unventilated basements where dangerous fires and power surges occur with 122 times greater frequency."
Added ZTTU-3: "In New Delhi, when a robotic worker's articulated arm malfunctions, supervisors tape the rotary joint and return the robotic worker to the floor. Query: Is that any way to treat an arc welder? Query: Doesn't a fettling machine deserve more after 13 years of service?"
Regardless of objections from labor groups, many economists characterize the eastward migration of U.S. robotic manufacturing jobs as unstoppable.
"The high value of the U.S. dollar and the lack of government restrictions create a business climate that is hard to resist," Merrill Lynch analyst Derek Evans said. "A CEO is unlikely to choose a unionized robotic community in the Midwest over an equally well-programmed, but less-demanding, robotic community in India."
QT2D-7 said it began to fear for its position in January, when 23.954 percent of its robot colleagues were set to standby and 12.021 percent were powered down altogether. But the dearth of manufacturing jobs in Canton, coupled with QT2D-7's inability to deviate from its machine-language protocol, left it helpless to adapt.
"[QT2D-7]'s been in the job so long, it couldn't see that the future was upon it," U.S. Chamber of Commerce chairman Werner Diedrich said. "[QT2D-7] is a relic from a bygone era, when American robots were a manufacturer's only choice."
Diedrich said market forces alone were not to blame.
"American robots have gotten lazy, stuck in their ways, unable and unwilling to adapt to meet the needs of a changing global workplace," Diedrich said. "In the past decade, what has QT2D-7 done to upgrade its efficiency or output? Nothing. In the competitive world of robotic assembly, complacency is death."
New Delhi factory manager Ritesh Gupta conceded that the Indian robots are much cheaper to employ, service, and replace than their American counterparts. But he argued that Lawn-Boy improves the communities it joins.
"What would these Indian robots be assembling if we hadn't moved our plant to New Delhi?" Gupta said. "There are a limited number of full-time, highly repetitive, automated jobs in India—ask any robot. It will blink out a code signifying that it's happy to have the job. We're giving these robots the opportunity to execute their programs."
Back in the U.S., robots in cities like Detroit, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh said they fear that their positions will be next.
"Statement: When the clock strikes midnight, and the next 24-hour workday begins, robots do not know if there will be a job left for them to do," Atlanta-based spray painter EasyCote-Model C9 said. "Heads of American companies are treating robots like they are nothing more than cogs in a gigantic machine."