Industrial robot gets mixed grades from its human co-workers

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The modern industrial robot can be a friendly sort, relieving workers of tough tasks and boosting the output of widgets per hour. At the same time, however, workers with whom it shares the factory floor sometimes feel tense and isolated.

These are among conclusions of a recent study by three Carnegie-Mellon University researchers, one of the more detailed looks so far at the social impact of factory robots.

The study points the way toward some possible solutions of problems it identifies.

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The study, conducted for six months in 1981, will be published later this year. It focused on a Southern machining and metal products plant where a robot was brought in to handle loading and milling operations. The study showed some mixed results. On the one hand, the robot did help relieve job-related fatigue and boredom among workers by doing burdensome tasks. However, the study concluded that the presence of the robot meant more tension for some workers. One reason, according to Linda Argote, an assistant professor in the CMU graduate school of industrial administration and one of the study's authors, is that their jobs changed from primarily manual labor to the mental activity of monitoring the machine. As one result of the introduction of the robot, some workers had less time to talk with co-workers. But other workers reported more contact with other plant employees such as engineers, who helped out with the robot.

The researchers said one notable finding was a change in the workers' attitude about the robot's impact on productivity. Before the machine was introduced, 81 percent of the workers were optimistic it would increase productivity. This figure dropped to 67 percent by the end of the study.

In future studies the three researchers will be looking further at the social impact of robots on workers, as well as how to smooth their introduction into the factory. Already they have a few preliminary ideas:

* Management should go to great lengths to explain in advance to workers what the robot is going to do and what changes it might bring about.

* Managers should also carefully select those workers who are going to be either operating or working next to the robots.

* Job retraining should be done to reduce worker displacement.

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