Are Robots Really Taking Manufacturing Jobs?

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In 1960 one in four Americans held a position in the manufacturing industry; today, fewer than one in ten Americans do. The primary culprit of this employment shift was globalization and a subsequent increased reliance on cheap overseas labor. Today, however, the industry faces a new stateside talent shortage: as factories become more and more automated, and robots replace humans on factory floors, finding talent for coding and operating robotics, IoT, and 3-D printing in manufacturing has proved a major challenge for the industry. In fact, a survey conducted by NewtonX found that almost 2.6M jobs will remain unfilled over the next ten years unless the industry invests in proactively training new talent. 

This acute talent shortage has spurred many manufacturing giants to engage in labor switching – or, retraining workers to adjust to new economic realities and labor needs. 

Dark Warehouses and the People Who Power Them 

We wrote last year about the trend of dark warehouses — warehouses run without humans on the floor or assembly lines. Increasingly, companies are limiting human labor on the factory floor, and instead investing in people that can control, monitor, and analyze robotic processes. For instance, Symbotic, one of the leading suppliers of automated warehouse robots, is working with Coca Cola, Target, and Wal-Mart. The company claims that its system allows food retailers and wholesalers to cut distribution-center labor costs by 80%, and invest in warehouses that are 25% to 40% smaller. Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, uses robots that can carry up to 500 Kg above them to automate 70% of warehouse work.

These companies know, though, that finding and retaining talent to power their warehouses will determine the success of their digitization strategies. That’s why numerous companies are developing labor retraining programs. 

For instance, Radwell International Inc., a manufacturing and repair firm in New Jersey, has a program for identifying astute workers with foundational knowledge on factory processes, and re-training them. The program emphasizes teaching skills such as software programming on Visual Basic, Python, and manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing, to empower workers to begin automating tasks themselves.

Radwell’s strategy has paid off, and other manufacturers that are investing in millions of dollars worth of robots are likewise considering how they can create scalable initiatives for attracting and retaining talent. Indeed, 72% of manufacturing executives surveyed by NewtonX said that sourcing high-quality labor is their number one concern with digitizing the industry. 

The challenge isn’t just in finding people who can do basic coding. It’s also in finding people who understand the industry well enough, and have enough technical knowledge, to ideate and implement new automated processes. BMW, for instance, has multiple paths to labor switching so that it can utilize the knowledge of its workers in streamlining their jobs. 

The Future Manufacturing Workforce: Retrained and Newly Valued

The US is lagging behind Germany and other European countries when it comes to automating manufacturing, which makes finding top talent all the more urgent. Where once the industry depended on oversees labor, today it depends on superior technology. Because of this, companies will not only need to create new position paths, both internally and externally, but will also need to invest in talent to a greater extent than they have previously. Experts predict that this will take 2-3 more years, during which time competition for talent will be incredibly steep. However, eventually companies will develop innovative new methods for retraining their workforces to add value in today’s digitized manufacturing landscape. 



About Author

Germain Chastel is the CEO and Founder of NewtonX.

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