Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 May 2021
1. At the shareholders meeting in 2016, Elon Musk presented the Tesla factory as ‘the machine that makes the machine’. He referred to this machine-making machine in the context of Tesla's manufacturing plant that would not need much human involvement. The goal was to produce cars by using smart robots and with as few employees as possible in the assembly line. However, the production of these cars incurred serious delays. In 2018, Elon Musk had to admit that he had relied too much on the capabilities of robots and that ‘humans are underrated’. Another example of underestimating human input in robotised work environments is the robotic production of Adidas shoes. The company had to shut down these factories after two years because the robots could not meet the requirements of the flexible production rate. It was more difficult to retrain than to rely on human workers instead.
2. These examples express the idea of the so-called ‘Dark Factory’, which refers to manufacturing plants using intelligent machines and systems that require hardly any involvement of human operators. This would lead to a factory that can operate in the dark without any lights. However, the examples mentioned above show that human workers are still needed in these robotised work environments. This is taken as guiding principle throughout this entire chapter. When it comes to robots that replace human workers, this chapter argues that fully automated working environments cannot be created with the current technological capabilities of robots. On the contrary, robots will perform only a part of the tasks of human workers. Therefore, human workers and robots will have to work more closely together. This will have an impact on the relationship between them. As will be discussed below, this evolving humanrobot relationship will change the working conditions for workers and will affect the employment relationship.
3. This chapter does not disregard the fact that robots have been part of manufacturing plants for several decades. Nevertheless, it will be argued that the view of the robot in the workplace as a huge robot arm in the assembly line will soon become outdated or might already be outdated.