Little sign of ‘robophobia’ in town on cusp of automation

Owner of Edgeworthstown robot maker: Robots will bring jobs, not remove them

Sandra McCaffrey of DCS and Fine Gael councillor Paul Ross: ‘I do appreciate the irony of a robotics company bringing jobs to a town said to be most at risk from robots.’ Photograph: Shelley Corcoran for The Irish Times

Sandra McCaffrey of DCS and Fine Gael councillor Paul Ross: ‘I do appreciate the irony of a robotics company bringing jobs to a town said to be most at risk from robots.’ Photograph: Shelley Corcoran for The Irish Times

 

A robot maker in Edgeworthstown woke up on Friday morning to headlines suggesting the town in which he makes his machines is the one which will suffer most at their cold and lifeless hands in the years ahead.

“I’m just waiting for the lynch mob to arrive now,” says Richard McCaffrey of Dynamic Control Solutions (DCS) with a laugh when asked if he is now being viewed as a latterday Dr Frankenstein by locals raging against the machines they fear may be coming to take their jobs.

According to a study carried out by economists at University College Cork, two out of every five Irish jobs are at high risk of being lost to automation, with the Co Longford town said to be the one facing the biggest risk from automation. The study suggested that almost two-thirds of the jobs in the town could soon be under threat.

But McCaffrey, the founder and managing director of a high-tech company which designs, builds and installs automation equipment for the manufacturing industry, isn’t buying the gloomy prognosis.

Robots are not going to steal our jobs, but what they will do is allow us do better more interesting ones

“We design equipment that can do the repetitive jobs currently done by people,” he says. “Take pallet-loading. It is a difficult and repetitive task and one that can be relatively easily replicated by a robot. That can free up humans to do more rewarding and more challenging tasks,” he adds.

“Robots are not going to steal our jobs, but what they will do is allow us do better more interesting ones. A human being loading or unloading something for 12 hours a day is being completely under-utilised, so why not get the robots to do the repetitive tasks and recognise the value and the capacity humans have to do other things?”

‘Adapt or close’

In any event, McCaffrey points out, whether we welcome it or not, automation is coming because “companies need to stay competitive and it is already happening at a much faster pace in other parts of the world, where they build their production lines around automated processes. So no matter what happens companies will be forced to adapt or close.”

He set up his first facility in Longford town in 2014 and moved to Edgeworthstown late last year as his business continued to expand, with the single biggest thing hindering further expansion proving to be – perhaps ironically – a difficulty in recruiting more human beings to help him make the machines.

McCaffrey is not the only Longford native who has read the stories about the automated threats faced by Edgeworthstown. Paul Ross is a local Fine Gael councillor and, while he describes the UCC study as “interesting”, he insists that the town is “not facing Armageddon by any means”.

“Historically, we have been a manufacturing town and there some big factories still operating here, so automation is going to have an effect. But our location in the centre of Ireland is great and comes with all the transport links, house prices are low here and we have a great quality of life.”

‘Appreciate the irony’

He describes DCS as “one of the most innovative companies in Ireland” and expresses the view that it will bring jobs to the town and not take them away – “although I do appreciate the irony of a robotics company bringing jobs to a town said to be most at risk from robots”.

Guests who go to stay in Center Parcs aren’t going to want to be greeted and cared for by robots

Ross also points to ongoing efforts to futureproof Edgeworthstown, including the opening of a business hub in an old bank, the regeneration of the main street and the locating of a new library at the heart of the community.

“And then of course you have Center Parcs, which is opening this summer,” he adds. “That is only 10 miles from here and it is a really big deal for the region and it will be a panacea to the whole world of automation,” he says. “It is a service industry and one which needs people. Guests who go to stay in Center Parcs aren’t going to want to be greeted and cared for by robots.”