When asked what the robot is called, Jon Barron says, “Merle.”
He’s joking. The welding robot doesn’t have a name, but it’s nevertheless a significant part of I&M Machine & Fabrication’s success.
“Things you can do with a manual welder may take a half hour,” said Barron, general manager of I&M in St. Joseph. “It might take five to 10 minutes with a robot.”
On this Labor Day weekend, it’s worth noting that robots are no longer exclusive to science fiction. In the workplace, robots load heavy bags, weld pieces of metal and even perform surgeries. A combination of global competition and COVID-19 fears could accelerate this trend.
“In this country, without automation, you’re going to get left behind really fast,” Barron said.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Czech writer Karel Capek’s science fiction play about a factory that makes artificial people called robots. The author was the first to coin the term, which was derived from the Czech word robota, for forced labor. In popular culture, perceptions of robots range from the chirping, friendly companions of “Star Wars” to the ruthless destruction of the Terminator.
The reality is more mundane. While robots don’t have names and personalities, they do have speed and precision. Companies like I&M and LifeLine Foods use robotics for tasks that are repetitive or require a high level of detail.
At I&M, the robotic arm swings and produces sparks as it quickly welds products ranging from engine mounts on trucks to metal containers for 7,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. LifeLine uses a robotic arm to package and load 50-pound bags, a task that would prove back-breaking for a human on an eight-hour shift, let alone the 24 hours that the robot operates. For LifeLine, it was worth the $1.8 million investment.
“It doesn’t take a break, it doesn’t go on vacation, it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance,” said Tim Hale, director of maintenance and engineering at the food ingredients company. “It gives us an edge.”
A century after Capek wrote “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” the question isn’t whether robots will destroy the world. It’s whether they’ll take our jobs.
The answer is not so straight-forward. A study from Oxford Economics found that the number of robots in use worldwide increased to 2.25 million in the last two decades. A separate study from Brookings estimates that about 50% of St. Joseph’s jobs are at risk of eventually being lost to some form of automation, with low-skill positions or repetitive tasks like packaging most likely to be impacted.
But could those jobs be at risk anyway, without technology? Companies that invest in automation, a broad term that includes both moving robots that perform a task and computers that monitor or control processes, gain efficiencies and become more competitive. In an automated workplace, there might be fewer jobs, but the ones that remain require more training and could pay more money.
“I don’t think they’re going to take jobs,” said Barron, of I&M. “They’re going to create jobs in this country, because we can’t compete with China and countries like China if we do it manually.”
I&M has undergone numerous expansions over the years and now employs 150 people. It makes fabricated and machined parts for about 160 companies in industries ranging from agriculture to manufacturing and shipping.
Educators in the area, including Hillyard Technical Center, Missouri Western State University and Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, include instruction in robotics as part of a drive to get students trained for manufacturing in the 21st century.
LifeLine illustrates the way that industry has changed. It operates in buildings that once housed Quaker Oats, a company that employed up to a 1,000 people in its heyday. Using technology, LifeLine is able to process large quantities of corn for the food industry, with a fraction of Quaker’s labor force. LifeLine employs about 150.
For instance, Hale said around eight employees were needed to monitor a single mill in the 1920s. Today, one employee does that with the help of computers, cameras and sensors.
“In 1997, that’s when the first total lights-out mill was built in Columbia, South Carolina,” he said. “Lights out means the mill runs by itself. There’s no one there. The technology is available. It’s here.”
The other thing that’s here is COVID-19. While a humanoid robot remains the stuff of science fiction, a global pandemic is all too real. The need to reduce the risk of contagion could drive even more businesses to embrace robots.
“I think it already has,” Hale said. “Robotics is going to be there and it’s going to continue to grow.”
In recent months, local realtors have noticed a scarce renters’ market with fewer options available for local residents.
Laura Wyeth, with Berkshire Hathaway, said she didn’t know what to expect with the market when the pandemic hit, but she’s been busy nonstop.
“Even in a good market, August is usually kind of slow, but the biggest problem we’ve had is the lack of inventory,” Wyeth said.
Wyeth said it’s still a sellers’ market, but that could change considering how low the current interest rates are.
“Both markets are great and people are selling quickly and if they’re building or buying, they’re renting,” Wyeth said.
Missouri Western State University’s on-campus living is currently at nearly 87% capacity, and Wyeth said more students have been moving off campus.
“Parents of college-aged students are also choosing to purchase an income-producing property, so instead of paying rent, they’re paying a mortgage and it’s a great way for young people to get started in owning their own property,” Wyeth said.
One option available for students that Wyeth thinks many don’t take advantage of when looking for off-campus living is the Downtown area.
“I don’t know if a lot of college students are aware of Downtown, and in the future I want to work on a campaign to do loft open spaces tours for students to come down,” Wyeth said.
Wyeth said she expects the American Electric Lofts to bring a lot of younger residents to the Downtown area when they become available in January 2021.
Since some of Missouri Western’s classes have gone virtual, Ellis Cross, a local housing manager, noticed that not many students are needing to live in St. Joseph anymore.
“However, you look at the flooding situation down in south St. Joseph and all those individuals that need housing now because their houses are destroyed or under reconstruction, that influx kind of offsets the decrease of students,” Cross said.
Cross said the market also has been tough because some renters aren’t always paying.
“It’s very unpopular and in some places illegal to evict somebody,” Cross said. “It causes problems for people trying to take care of their property because there’s no money to take care of it with.”
Cross said there are properties open around St. Joseph, but there’s not a lot of high-quality options.
“If there is high-quality options available they’re absolutely outrageous, so my goal is to get in the middle and find someone a really nice place to live that doesn’t cost $1,000 a month,” Cross said.
Cross also has noticed that the Downtown area is becoming more popular for all types of residents, but there’s still the need for good quality.
“Landlords are going to have to start fixing up their properties and then they’re going to be charging more in rent, and people that are low-income aren’t going to have proper places to live,” Cross said.
Cross’ goal is to start finding more decent options for residents to live that will also save them money, because St. Joseph’s demographic needs more options.
Racial trauma has been on the minds of St. Joseph’s Black population.
While it’s been a topic of discussion for decades, videos of recent shootings like George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have brought it to the forefront. Now, local Black artists, organizers and teachers said it’s time to discuss it and solve it.
“When you see an atrocity going on with somebody that looks like you, you kind of feel that same pain. To see it broadcast over and over again, you know, it gets traumatic,” Dax Cruze, a St. Joseph resident said.
Long-simmering issues brought up in Black Lives Matter protests like police brutality, in which a study by the National Academy of Sciences shows 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police officer, equality and racism need to be addressed, they said. And it needs to happen offline.
“Racism is going to happen whether you talk about it or not, so we have to talk about it. We got to understand each other — that’s the biggest thing,” Kenneth Strader, a hip-hop artist and St. Joseph native, said.
Compared to years past in Buchanan County, where Black people make up about an estimated 6% of the population, or about 5,240 people, 2020 has been a fruitful year for conversations about race.
In June, MidCity Excellence and the Young Women’s Christian Association held their first rally to address racism in the area through positivity and discussion.
“We’re only one degree away from making this a better quality of life for all people in St. Joseph, especially people of color who have little to no representation in all systems of leadership and administration,” MCE CEO Kimberly Warren said at the event.
In a similar manner, St. Joseph’s Juneteenth event was a beacon of positive feelings and alliance, considering it almost didn’t happen until LaTonya Williams, the associate director of youth and community outreach at the Bartlett Center, took it over because of a need to celebrate Black freedom.
“I know that there’s issues in our community and everything like that. I get that, I know that. But it gave me a lot of hope and that people do care and they are trying,” she said.
Experiencing racism in St. Joseph
This leads to the question — What are the issues? Where is the racism in the area and how do they process seeing videos of Black people getting killed on an almost weekly basis?
If you ask any minority in St. Joseph, Cruse said, they’ll tell you their own unique way of experiencing it.
For him, it was when he was 11, shooting hoops at the basketball court, when a group of white people were looking at him suspiciously. Cruse said a bigger kid whispered to a younger child to tell him something. The boy walked up to Cruse and called him a racial epithet. Cruse didn’t immediately react because he didn’t know how to process it.
“I remember that incident from over 20 years ago. I think about what my response was — I think about it to this day, what I could have did, what I could have said. I get angry about it sometimes,” he said.
Cruse said he pointed at the bigger kid to tell him he was a coward.
Now father to a 12-year-old boy, Cruse is thankful his son has yet to have to deal with that kind of racism firsthand. He said he’s taught him about respecting others, regardless of their profession, race or gender.
“You treat people with respect until they disrespect you,” he said.
Black people in St. Joseph such as Cruse and Strader can tell lengthy stories about being targeted by police near their homes, where they said they were minding their business, not committing any crimes. The incidents shook them up and lessened their trust in law enforcement.
As his son is growing up, Cruse said that while he respects police, there’s also inherent skepticism when he sees them.
“He takes a notice on his own. I don’t have to make a comment about it. He sees them down the street and he sees them looking at them just a little too strong. He shouldn’t have to feel that way,” Cruse said.
At the Barlett Center, Williams said children there acted in a similar manner after the alleged murder of George Floyd.
“At the beginning of everything, the cops would come in the neighborhood and the kids in my program would be like, ‘I’m afraid’ and they would hide and cry,” Williams said.
As police would show up to talk to the students, she said the fear dissipated and they met on a personal level.
“Now, they’re hugging the cops, getting on their backs. They know their card numbers around town and everything and they’re not afraid,” Williams said.
Processing the videos
While those discussions continue, so do the endless loop of videos of Black people getting, like George Floyd dying with a knee on his neck or Blake getting shot seven times.
As a mother, Williams said she doesn’t stop her children from seeing them. As she said, they’re necessary snapshots of reality for a Black person.
“We have had lots of talks. And as a mom, it’s uncomfortable to admit to your kids, at times, there’s nothing you can do. Or that you can actually do everything correct and you could still die. I mean, as a mom, you don’t want to have to tell your kids that, but it’s our reality,” she said.
Similarly, Cruse said there’s no protecting him from videos of Black people being killed. For awhile, it was a worry for him to be protected from them. Now, it’s a conversation starter.
“I would always think about ‘When do I start having these conversations with him? When do I introduce this?’ Through time, it’s so out here and wide open in the public and on people’s faces that you really can’t hide from them. They’ve seen it on their own,” he said.
As more videos of racial trauma and death continue to be shared on social media, so are discussions on how to stop it.
Cruse said he’s been in talks with other members of St. Joseph’s black community on how to bring some positive energy to the area. The MCE said that its “Hate Has NO Home” event was just a start for efforts for racial equality in St. Joseph. Strader said he wants to get a more positive mood out there through his music and events.
For children growing up in this environment, Cruse said they’re realizing racial difference early with adults there to guide them in what he hopes is a positive direction.
“The one thing that always I tell people with these conversations is that we’ve got to start with our children. For one, they’re the future and two, they start out innocent. It’s the things that you teach them in their influences of their surroundings and the morals that you instill in them,” he said.
For adults, people like Strader and Cruse see it as harder to break through, as misunderstandings about movements like Black Lives Matter through social media and systemic racism already have poisoned the waters of those talks.
“Every death is important. People didn’t realize this is actually a problem and it should have always been a problem. It seems like in society, it takes a little bit more hammering for people to realize what’s going on,” Strader said.
The best way to address it, they said. is not with arguments on Facebook or replies on Twitter, but face-to-face discussions.
“I think (social media) does a lot of good in a lot of other ways. But I think on things like this, at times, it causes way more issues. (In person), the discussions are not as rude, evil or disrespectful,” Williams said.
Cruse agrees. As he is trying to establish ways to encourage more discussions between races, he said the move away from those happening online are needed.
“I just hope people can come around and get a real understanding of what it is to be Black in America. You’ve got to understand first before you can speak on anything like that,” he said.
Note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly classified Jacob Blake's shooting as a murder. It has been corrected.