What the Robotic Age Means for U.S. Manufacturing

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In the last fifteen years, manufacturing in the United States has undergone a fundamental shift. As millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost to outsourcing and automation, output has steadily continued to grow. And while U.S. manufacturing output has decreased by only 1% since 1990, manufacturing jobs have decreased by over 30% in the same time period.

Bottom line—we’re producing more goods as a nation, but we no longer need the same amount of manpower to make it happen.

And the trend shows no sign of slowing down. With Foxconn’s three-year plan to integrate over 1 million robots into its assembly lines, more workers will soon be phased out of jobs.  Foxconn founder and CEO Terry Gou says robots will help the company increase efficiency and cope with rising labor costs, but there’s no denying the fact that thousands of factory workers will be displaced.

Since U.S. factories began adopting robotics into their assembly lines, national production has risen over 30%—so it’s not surprising that automation is a natural move for manufacturers looking to stay competitive. But as U.S. organizations charge full-speed into the Robotic Age, how do we ensure manufacturing workers are prepared to follow?

Taking notes from automation leaders around the world

Countries across the globe are using robotics to solve today’s manufacturing challenges—from coping with rising labor costs to maintaining factory productivity in an increasingly competitive global market.

Japan was one of the first nations in the world to capitalize on the low overhead of factory robots. As negative population growth drove up wages, Japanese manufacturers turned to automation to cut costs. The nation has since invested $50 million in robotic development programs and currently controls 40% of the total factory robotic population around the world. By 2025, the Japanese government predicts 15 million manufacturing jobs will be replaced by robots.

Germany, on the other hand, is leveraging robotics to grow the nation’s manufacturing base and bring factories (read: jobs) back home. It’s no coincidence that the country with 43% of Europe’s factory robot population also enjoys an export ratio of 63%. Government incentive programs encourage German manufacturers to adapt automation and help to sustain the nation’s global competiveness.

With results like this worldwide, it’s not surprising that the United States is beginning to take an interest in automation. In the first half of 2011 alone, North America nearly doubled robotic orders due to heightened demand in U.S. automotive factories.

New technology can change an industry

Although some fear that we are in the midst of a robotic takeover, the impact of new technology in the workplace is nothing new. Rather, robots are just the latest in a string of technological developments that have changed the way work is done around the world.

Consider the job landscape at the turn of the century, when roughly 50% of Americans were farmers. As tractors gained popularity and increased productivity in the fields, fewer workers were needed to tend the same amount of land.  Displaced workers eventually found their way into the manufacturing and engineering sectors, fueling the Industrial Age in the United States. In other words, farmers were kicked up—not out—of the job ranks.

Similarly, when computers were introduced into the workplace in the 1970s-1980s, secretaries feared their jobs would be taken over by machines that could complete the same tasks quicker and for less money. But in reality, computers enabled administrative assistants to take on more complicated tasks and manage more responsibility than ever before—increasing their earning capacity and value in the workplace.

If history repeats itself (as it commonly does) the transition to a fully automated manufacturing floor is inevitable. According to John Dulchinos, President and CEO of Adept Technology, not only is the robotic takeover inevitable, but it is a natural part of a continually advancing society. “If you look out far enough, machines are going to win. The human body . . . was not designed to be a factory machine. It was designed to be a thinking machine.”

What the robotic takeover means for the factory floor

In the big picture, automation means progress. Robots are designed to perform the same dull and repetitive tasks currently performed by manual labor—but in a safer, faster and more consistent fashion. As robots become a core part of a competitive manufacturing business, the demand for higher skilled robot-savvy engineers, programmers and service technicians will grow. And the more high-wage job opportunities are created, the more Americans can enjoy a higher standard of living—improving our economic status in the world.

But in the immediate future, factory workers are right to be concerned. As automation becomes standard practice, what will happen to the line and assembly workers phased out of their jobs? If nothing is done to transition these workers into new roles alongside their robotic counterparts, they may not be far from the unemployment line.

Unfortunately, the companies who are currently pushing toward automation aren’t as interested in retraining the workers that get left behind to fill more specialized roles. And in the immediate future, this could be a real problem for the manufacturing industry. “The ability to make things in America is at risk,” said Jeannine Kunz, Director of Professional Development for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “If companies don’t address this shortage of qualified labor now, hundreds of thousands of jobs will go unfilled by 2021, jeopardizing our workers, our companies and our nation’s future.”

Looking to the future

The next 15 years will be pivotal for American manufacturing, and our success depends on our ability to navigate this transition.  Fortunately manufacturers are taking notice, and events like the Interactive Manufacturing Experience (imX) summit—September 12-14 in Las Vegas, NV—are being developed to address the impending challenges. The imX hopes to “provide a national forum to fully engage technology innovators and leading manufacturers in meaningful and comprehensive dialogue to propel the industry forward” and hopefully will set an example for other industry leaders to follow.

While summits are one opportunity for manufacturers to begin discussing solutions, the problem is large and widespread—and it will take a concentrated effort by corporations, government officials, manufacturers, technologists and the public at large to make the transition to an automated manufacturing floor casualty-free. For now, we can only hope that organizations like Foxconn will focus on the human side of automation and provide displaced manufacturers with a transitional path for workers to move up—not out—from the factory floor.

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About the Author

Alyssa Sittig
Alyssa played an instrumental role in the development of the Arena Blog and social media channels from 2011 to 2012. Joining the team with a background in public policy, Alyssa ... Read More 

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