Can Robots Replace Humans? Just Ask Elon Musk

Traditional robot costs vs. "cobot" costs

Right at this moment, she adds, we are seeing competing influences at work: “The fear that something is changing and the awareness that as we do this, we unleash people to be doing things that add value in new and different ways.”

In the first phase, robots take over repetitive, high-volume production tasks that were often dangerous or boring—and unlikely to attract young workers. Until recently, Travis Hollman, CEO of Hollman, the world’s largest manufacturer of wood and laminate lockers, was ambivalent about using robots on his production line. He’s a big believer in humans and thinks Elon Musk missed a crucial fact: “You can’t get to a perfect product if people don’t genuinely care about it and aren’t involved in making it.”

In July, he took the plunge and purchased his first robot, a machine that will do the heavy lifting and sorting of materials that was previously done by people who would often injure their backs. Those people will now oversee the machines. “It’s not going to replace people, but it will save people from getting hurt. It will help with worker’s comp,” he says.

It will also boost productivity, potentially threefold, as the machines can be stacked three deep in the company’s 300,000-squarefoot factory in Irving, Texas, and operate “lights out” overnight, so the materials are ready for humans by morning. “We have the capability to make it very efficient in the future as we buy more machines, but right now it’s a money-out thing, saving injury and relieving stress on the company.”

Automation’s Limitations

But Hollman is reticent to try automation anywhere in the process that involves customization, which is key for the company’s customers, who include fitness chains, major U.S. sports leagues and university sports teams.

The lockers are tailored to individual team needs and include facial recognition technology, LED screens that outline daily training regimens and other high-tech amenities. The company is constantly looking for innovative solutions for customers, and Hollman can’t see how robots wouldn’t interfere with that process.

“Maybe in the future,” he says. “But right now the technology isn’t there. It might work for Elon Musk to make the same car over and over. But we’re trying to make a customized product to suit each individual need. Every time we try a new material, it might be different tooling, different machining of different parts—I don’t see how you turn that over to robotics.”

Robotics—at least the kind that isn’t cost prohibitive—has been viewed as suitable primarily for manufacturers doing high volume, high scale, less customization. However, the technology is evolving. “A lot of those perceptions are grounded in a reality,” says Humpton. “But we’ve had people working on the question of ultimate customization for the last five to six years, and the technologies now exist.”

That’s thanks, in part, to the R&D done by companies like Siemens, which invests more than $1 billion a year in the U.S. alone. “We’re going to see the technologies become cost competitive in the coming years,” she says. “If you were the first to own an iPhone, you might have paid $600 for it. You don’t necessarily have to do that today.”

A new generation of less expensive, collaborative robots will account for a third of all industrial robots sold in 2025, according to Loup Ventures, a research-driven venture capital firm.

These “cobots,” at a pricetag of $25,000-$45,000, compared with upward of $100,000 for a traditional robot, also offer more flexibility and faster reaction time.

“We created a robot with sensors, so the robot will run at full speed, but if a human gets within a caution area, the robot will keep its cycle, but slow down,” explains Roger Varin, CEO of Stäubli’s North American mechatronics operations in Duncan, South Carolina. If the human gets too close, the robot stops. As soon as the human walks out of the danger zone, the robot starts up again. “That gives the manufacturer the opportunity to integrate it in different ways based on changing scenarios and new requests from customers.”

The Fear Factor

But there’s more to trepidation than cost. “Most companies just don’t even know where to start,” says Alexandre Capone, senior manager architect at digital transformation consultancy Capgemini. “We’re talking about a lot of new technology, robotics and AI machining, and if you’ve never touched it, you’re scared of it.” Even those that have begun are not yet thrilled with their results. Capgemini’s 2017 study of 1,000 large manufacturers across eight countries and six manufacturing subsectors found 75 percent had a smart factory initiative in place or were working on it, but only 14 percent were satisfied by their level of smart factory success.