Automated assembly systems face a battle against low-cost labor and cultural attitudes.
by Andy Wilson
In Erick Zonca's award-winning motion picture The Dreamlife of Angels (Columbia/Tristar Studios, 1999), two working-class girls become friends in Lille, a city in Belgium with a style sometimes described as between Flemish and Baroque. When we first meet the free-spirited Isa (played by Elodie Bouchez), she is homeless and unemployed, making cards from photographs in magazines and selling them on the streets. It's all rather depressing. After a while, Isa meets Marie (played by Natacha Regnier), a somewhat more down-to-earth girl, who takes pity on her and lets her share her apartment.
At one point in the film, Isa is introduced to the world of technology. The job is simple and very monotonous. She is handed a cable with 50 small wires and told to crimp each wire into the connector in a specific order. After five seconds, the boss says, "You were born to do this task, you are a natural."
Although the film is a masterpiece of the French art movement called déprimisme ("depressionism"), the scene reminded me of a visit I made to such a company in England not so long ago. After meeting the managing director (MD) and being wined and dined at lunch, it was time for a factory tour. "This is where the 'girls' work," the managing director announced as we were escorted around the premises.
While many of the women at the plant were very young, a few were older women. Apparently, they were the ones who performed the quality assurance of the parts. Being paid to ask nosey questions, I couldn't help wonder about the labor turnover in the factory. "Most of them are just waiting to get married and have children," the managing director declared. Labor turnover, it appeared, was less than two years.
It seemed to me as if such repetitive tasks as mounting wires in connectors could be automated. I suggested the idea to the managing director. My idea was very simple—a sophisticated robot-handling system tied to a machine-vision system that would locate the correct wires, place them in the connector, and crimp them. After each connector was fabricated, the machine would then perform an electrical test, and out the door the parts would go. Once deployed, labor would be reduced and quality and throughput would increase-all the benefits, in fact, that I have talked about so often in the pages of Vision Systems Design. Once set up, the machine would be capable of running 24/7.
Unfortunately, I was to face a few stark realities in my quest to relieve the women of their monotony. The first one was, as always, about money. "Do you know how much that would cost?" asked the MD. I didn't. But I was soon to find out that the 20 employees, who earned about $15,000 each per year, cranked out hundreds of thousands of connectors per year. Payback for my automated assembly system would be at least two years.
And then, and perhaps more important, there was the problem of finding a robot sophisticated enough to place very small wires in tiny connectors dexterously enough. "Where on earth are you going to find that type of technology?" the MD grinned.
I didn't know the answer to that one, either. But a horrible thought occurred to me that it didn't really exist yet, and it would be years before it ever would.
To make matters worse, the MD suggested that should labor costs in the UK increase, he could always move the manufacturing plant abroad where Indian or Chinese "girls" needed a fraction of the pay of their English counterparts.
At this point, I thanked him for lunch and went home. Being a proponent of automated manufacturing, the conversation had been more depressing than The Dreamlife of Angels.