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Employees Exit but Work Goes On : Robots Take Over the Night Shift at Kentucky Mill

December 30, 1985|Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — From midnight to 8 a.m., not a single person can be found in Mazak Corp.'s plant in northern Kentucky.

But in those eight hours, a totally automated third shift in the machine shop casts machines to be used in Ford Motor Co. engines and General Electric Co. appliances.

"We turn out the lights and go home, and let the machines do the work," said Fenton Kohler, vice president of the operation, which claims to be the world's largest automated factory.

"If there's a problem, the machines try to figure it out themselves. If not, the machine will shut down for the night."

The Florence plant is the first in the United States for Mazak. Its production accounts for 40% of the company's U.S. sales and is just one example in Kentucky of how American manufacturers are using automation and robotics.

"If we didn't automate, we wouldn't be able to compete in the world market," Kohler said. "We're the world innovator in unmanned systems. We're showing that American industry can be competitive again. If American industry doesn't automate, the trade deficit is just going to grow."

Vow to Avoid Layoffs

The arguments for increased automation and the use of robotics is growing, with most companies saying they can manufacture a higher quality, cheaper product with automation. Most pledge to automate without ordering mass layoffs.

"There have been no big layoffs, just mainly attrition or early retirement, that I am aware of," said Dick Edwards, a professor at the University of Kentucky who teaches an introductory course in automation and robotics in the school of engineering.

In Campbellsville, the only time a human is needed on the assembly line at the $50-million Batesville Casket Co. is when one of the robots needs rewiring or reprogramming. The rest of the time, a staff of robots welds, sands, finishes, paints and sews the interior materials for the caskets.

"We feel (that) to maintain leadership, it is important to mechanize to be more efficient and cost effective," said Bob Smith, vice president of investor relations at Hillenbrand Industries, which owns Batesville Casket. "If we don't, someone else--the Japanese--will beat us to the punch with better quality, cheaper products."

Both Mazak and Batesville Casket continue to employ humans for intricate jobs that machines cannot do. And both say the demand for technicians is great.

In Lexington, International Business Machines Corp. initiated an expensive worker retraining program--it cost $10 million in 1983-84--when it began to automate its typewriter assembly line with robots. Division manager Ed Lassetter said workers are getting new jobs and none of the plant's 6,000 employees is being laid off, although some have been encouraged to accept transfers to other IBM plants.

"I'm 100% sold on the fact that this is the way to do business," said Loretta Ellis, an assembly-line manager who started as a receptionist and secretary who knew only how to turn a typewriter on. Now she can put one together as competently as the people and machines she oversees.

In Louisville, Ford recently announced it planned to use robots in a new paint division at its small truck plant without any layoffs. Across town, General Electric spent $60 million in 1983 to automate the dishwasher facilities at Appliance Park.

"Employment level (for the division) is the same after automation as it was before, about 1,500," said Jim Allen, GE spokesman.

Allen said some of the dishwasher unit workers were retrained to handle and service the automated equipment. GE has been so pleased with the move it plans to spend $100 million to automate the park's refrigerator division.

Doing Mundane Jobs

"The jobs the robots and automation are now doing are the mundane, often hazardous jobs that people did," said Edwards. "The U.S. plants have no choice in the matter. They either have to automate or emigrate. If they don't, they will be eaten up by plants overseas who do automate."

Kohler, at Mazak's factory, said the frequency of serious injury to employees is "down to zilch" because automation now handles the dangerous jobs. "We used to have lost fingers and hands a lot, but we haven't had any of that (with automation)."

Norman Mitchell, financial secretary of Local 761 of the International Union of Electrical Workers at GE's Louisville operation, said union officials are pleased with the automation.

"When Building Three (the dishwasher unit) went into automation, it created jobs" because of increased production and sales, Mitchell said. "I don't think anybody likes to see a robot take jobs that could have been a human's. But I think man understands there has to be changes in order to stay competitive.

"The American worker has to accept change, to make a quality product at a cheaper price to meet foreign competition."

S. Rayburn Watkins, president of Associated Industries of Kentucky, which has 5,000 members statewide, said the switch to automation has been far less traumatic than anticipated.

Watkins said even small companies are beginning to experiment with automation. "They are using computers for mailings, instead of mail clerks, or in small factories for some easy tasks," he said.

"The net result of automation is positive for the workers as well as the companies. The companies get better production, and the workers get more interesting jobs."

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