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PROVIDENCE, R.I.--Robots don't take bathroom breaks, and that's one reason why, all else being equal, they may make better factory workers than the human version.
But all else is getting less equal. New generations of super "smart" robots are doing more and more complex tasks, their needle arms going into tiny spaces the most delicate human hand can't reach. And just as the machines leap forward in sophistication, their price is coming down.
Another industrial revolution bangs at the doors, and as other industrial revolutions have done, this one will change everything. For one thing, factories that moved to Asia for low-wage workers may return to the United States. After all, if machines can do the labor-intensive jobs, it may not matter whether the factory is in Cleveland, Nashville, or Guangzhou.
In truth, while factory jobs have left the United States, factories never quite did. America still makes lots of stuff that can be produced with a handful of people running computerized equipment. What's different now is that the machines are getting more clever.
There were always some advantages to manufacturing locally, and they remain. For example, the Flextronics solar-panel plant in Milpitas, Calif., can ship a solar panel to Phoenix more quickly and cheaply than a factory in Jiangsu province can. Courtesy of robots,
This trend helps workers in other high-wage countries. In Drachten, Netherlands, a Philips Electronics factory now employs one-tenth as many people as its sister plant in Zhuhai, China, according to a report in The New York Times.
Companies operating here won't care as much whether their employees are unionized or not. For one thing, they'll employ relatively few humans. For another, the people who run the robots will have high-level skills that automatically command good pay. Local cost of living and the price of energy may still play a role. But to attract the factories, a community will have to offer a tech-savvy workforce able to keep the robots on task.