Will They Do Windows?


Not long ago, technophobes warned that the advent of robots and computers would make the human worker obsolete. So far, at least, it seems they were unduly concerned.

Like other recent immigrants, robots have been relegated mostly to the least desirable tasks. Many are popping up in low-level service jobs. Transitions Research Corp. has developed a robot that delivers meal trays to hospital patients. "Nursing homes and hospitals just can't get the human staff they need 24 hours a day," says John Evans, the machines' designer. Other robots can flip hamburgers, serve as security guards, and clean office buildings.

Meanwhile, factory computers have made many human jobs more interesting. Blue-collar workers are not so much being displaced as promoted into "gold collar" jobs. They perform fewer routine functions and spend more time analyzing and responding to the wealth of data generated by the computers.

At General Electric's plant in Salisbury, North Carolina, for example, highly trained workers control automated machines. Their attitudes and abilities more closely resemble those of mid-level supervisors than of blue-collar workers, and management has found it can cut bureaucracy by allowing them to order new parts and schedule their hours—decisions that previously were made by supervisors.

And at one of the Weyerhauser Company's factories, more than 1,000 workers have access to a video screen that displays information about the plant's production—the same information the plant manager uses. Nowadays, workers as well as managers can get the "big picture" of their company's strengths and weaknesses, and that has improved both productivity and morale.