As the Industrial Revolution gathered strength in the 19th century, English workmen attempted to destroy new textile machines because they seemed to be taking away their jobs. Nearly two centuries later, some employees are using similar tactics against the new robots that are beginning to appear in more and more plants.
Gerrit Nijland, a professor of industrial robotics at Berenschot Management Training Center in The Netherlands, has just concluded a study of the acceptance of the automatons in his country, where 70 firms currently use robots. He found that the most common form of sabotage was to slow down the machines by feeding them parts in the wrong order, with the hope that management would be disappointed in robot performance. In other cases, employees repaired the machines incorrectly, mislaid essential spare parts or put sand into the robots' lubricating oil. In one metal construction plant, production was reduced for more than six months because of worker resistance. Other companies are certain to face similar troubles, says Nijland, unless management encourages "honest discussion with workers" about the effect robots will have on jobs.