Companies hire record number of robots amid labor shortage

Asked his thoughts on raising the minimum wage, the former Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Puzder once responded that there’s absolutely no downside to hiring robots. You can pay them a $0 an hour, and they’ll never complain, always attempt to upsell the customer, never take a vacation, can’t get injured on the job, and won’t file a sexual-harassment or race discrimination case against you, he said.

During a historic “Great Resignation“—where workers are fighting aggressively for higher pay and better working conditions—it sounds like Puzder’s questionable advice has found new resonance in America’s boardrooms. North American companies are buying robots in record numbers, according to data from the Association for Advancing Automation cited by Reuters. Since the start of 2021, orders have been placed for about 29,000—or nearly $1.5 billion worth, an almost 40% increase from the same period last year, according to the industry group. The second-biggest year in sales was back in 2017, when there was plenty of tech innovation but no pandemic roiling the economy.

The sudden interest is undoubtedly tied to AI’s work ethic and skills. In the past 20 months, factories across the country have ridden out all kinds of disruptions that, were the workforce 100% nonhuman, wouldn’t have slowed things down—by social distancing on the factory floor or staging worker walkouts, for instance. Lots of current human workers also quit during that same period, and companies are struggling to find replacements.

The result is they’ve likely been kicking around grass-is-greener scenarios where their factories and warehouses are run by a swarm of machines—though that’s assuming executives can get over the sticker shock (again: $1.5 billion for fewer than 30,000 new robo-workers, while the U.S.’s most recent jobs report shows 10.4 million open positions nationwide).

Automakers have for decades bought almost all of the robots, for obvious reasons. But Reuters also notes that for the first time in 2020, combined sales for other sectors leapfrogged the car industry’s, and that the gap widened even more in 2021. Auto manufacturers’ robot orders are up 20% this year (to 12,544 units), but orders placed by other kinds of companies grew by 53% (to 16,355 units). This means carmakers are still buying a record amount of robots! It’s just that suddenly everyone else is buying an even crazier number of them.