Once, robots assisted human workers. Now it’s the other way around.


When David Stinson finished high school, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1977, the first thing he did was get a job building houses. After a few years, though, the business slowed. Stinson was then twenty-four, with two children to support. He needed something stable. As he explained over lunch recently, that meant finding a job at one of the two companies in the area that offered secure, blue-collar work. “Either I’ll be working at General Motors or I’ll be working at Steelcase by the end of the year,” he vowed in 1984. A few months later, he got a job at Steelcase, the world’s largest manufacturer of office furniture, and he’s been working at its Grand Rapids metal plant ever since.
Stinson is now fifty-eight. He has a full, reddish face, a thick head of silver hair, and a majestic midsection. His navy polo shirt displays his job title—“Zone Leader”—and, like everyone else in the plant, he always has a pair of protective earplugs on a neon string draped around his neck. His glasses have plastic shields on the sides that give him the air of a cranky scientist.
“I don’t regret coming here,” Stinson said. We were sitting in the plant’s cafeteria, and Stinson was unwrapping an Italian sub, supplied by a deli that every Thursday offers plant workers sandwiches for four dollars instead of eight. “There’s been times I’ve thought about leaving, but it’s just getting to be a much more comfortable atmosphere around here. The technology is really helping that kind of thing, too. Instead of taking responsibility away from you, it’s a big aid. It’s definitely the wave of the future here.”