How Manufacturing is Changing with the Introduction of Automation

The landscape for manufacturing is changing – especially as more companies fold in the use of automation in their processes. According to an article in Forbes, The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte report that 2.7 million employees – or 22 percent of the skilled manufacturing workforce – will retire in the next decade. Another 700,000 skilled employees will need to be added due to industry growth, which will result in a total of 3.4 million employees needed. Forbes reports that the industry is predicted to fall 2 million workers short of this total number.

Manufacturing is a significant and growing factor for the success of the U.S. economy, but it is moving forward with fewer people. There are 8 million fewer manufacturing workers today than there were in 1980. But manufacturing’s contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) in the U.S. has increased more than $509 billion.

This shortfall will be due to a variety of factors, including: too few graduates from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) system, a reputation that manufacturing jobs provide a lack of training and don’t provide a clean work environment, and an under appreciation from the younger generation of the favorable wages, innovation, and global nature of the work manufacturing provides. Manufacturing can be hard work with long hours – the average manufacturing employee works about 300 hours more per year than the average U.S. worker – part of this is due to the shortage in workers in the industry.

Some of the changes in manufacturing are certainly due to the rise of automation in the industry. Automation has changed the requirements needed to do many manufacturing jobs. Skilled workers are crucial to the success of companies that use automation, but there is an increasing skills gap. Increased automation has a positive effect in that the addition of automated technology increases production rates for many companies in a shorter amount of time. The new innovation requires training, and this training is needed to close the skills gap. Job titles play a role as well – occupations that have 10 percent more new job titles grow 5 percent faster than competitors.

Data from the Robotics Industries Association shows that North American companies bought 32 percent more robots in the first quarter of 2017 than they did in the same period in 2016. This is likely do to the decreased cost of robots. While the introduction of automation may be decreasing the number of overall employees needed in a manufacturing plant, automating systems is making it cheaper to operate the plant  - which is helping those human jobs that are still needed to remain here in the U.S.

Automation in manufacturing has made things better – and worse. Benefits of an automated facility include:

  • A solution to the shortage of skilled labor workers
  • Improved productivity, quality, and accuracy
  • A decrease in human error
  • Elimination of mindless manual tasks, and the addition of more challenging tasks that require critical thinking
  • Less overhead costs for factories – a smaller workforce leads to lower payroll and benefits expenses

The rise of automation in manufacturing is beneficial to production and efficiency, yet it also comes with the downfall of reduced workforce. The use of technology in manufacturing requires more skilled workers. This shift has left the less educated factory workers behind. Technology is boosting production but it is not necessarily creating new and better jobs for humans. Automating certain functions and advanced manufacturing techniques, and adding robots allows companies to do more. Many of the less-educated factory workers are not skilled in the technology needed to use the machines – the requirements for the factory worker have shifted.

Automation may displace workers that perform particular skills within a particular industry, reducing opportunity for employment and wages. Drawbacks of automated processes in manufacturing include:

  • Elimination of some middle-class jobs – as automation requires more skilled workers, those with less education and little technological knowledge are being left behind
  • Higher unemployment of middle-class workers in some regions of the country can also directly affect the government support or assistance these areas receive
  • Less flexibility – human workers can be trained to perform several roles within a company – machines are usually programmed to do one specific task
  • The use of automation is increasing among manufacturing facilities, but the direct impact on costs for maintenance, repair, and training on these automated processes is not yet known

Many manufacturing facilities are located in rural areas of the country. The impact of increased automation and the ongoing shift in industrial jobs may be reducing job growth in rural America. Many jobs in rural areas are high-skill and pay well, but rural areas often lack the population and infrastructure to attract and retain new jobs. Due to resources available, rural service sectors would likely continue to generate lower-skill jobs that pay less on average, putting these areas worse off economically than more urban areas.

Automation will impact the future of manufacturing as processes increase through the years, and workers will feel the impact, good or bad. Almost every sector will require employees who can build software and hardware to run the machines, employees who can design automation, and workers who can maintain the equipment. Forrester estimates that nearly 15 million new jobs will be created in the U.S. within the next decade as a result of the shift to automated processes. While robotics and automation will lead to job growth, Forrester predicts that about 10 million jobs will be lost across all sectors to automation by 2027. The landscape is ever changing, and the next decade promises to bring new evolvement to a rapidly changing industry. The direct impact is yet to be seen, but the shift to advanced technology and robots performing many routine tasks in manufacturing and other sectors is here to stay.

As automation becomes more common in manufacturing, steps need to be taken to ensure that good workers are not lost. There is no simple solution to the problem, but one way that companies can ensure their employees can evolve with the changes is to offer more education and training in the workplace and shifting workers into positions that will allow them to learn and expand their skills.

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