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Automation to the Rescue Featured

Automation to the Rescue "Zoe robot from Espa\u00f1a. It is a pretty nice little thing - and it moves and it smiles."

After years of listening to misplaced narratives that robots would someday replace the American factory worker, the reality may come as a shock: Automation is the last hope to save American manufacturing. Today in the midst of a historic labor shortage, automation technologies are essential to reviving the industry’s capacity and reputation–giving workers a reason to believe again in the promise of the American factory.

The 2021 labor shortage has spread to nearly every sector of the U.S. economy, but perhaps none is more affected than manufacturing. Over the past decade, entry- and mid-level workers have incrementally abandoned manufacturing for jobs in tech and retail.

In the months following the pandemic, American manufacturing lost 1.4 million jobs. By most estimates it was among the top three hardest-hit sectors, along with hospitality and healthcare. And while manufacturing has mostly recovered the jobs lost to the pandemic, the Bureau of Labor Statistics still reported more than a million manufacturing job openings in October 2021–more than a year and a half after COVID first hit the U.S.

But today’s labor shortages are not purely COVID-driven. The industry has a reputational problem that can make it unattractive to workers. According to a 2017 study from Deloitte, fewer than 3 in 10 Americans would encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing. Their reasons? Job security, stability, and lack of career pathing.

That suggests that even if economists are right that the Great Resignation will soon end with the return of millions of Americans to a pre-pandemic workforce, manufacturing hiring will continue to lag.

So how can manufacturers use technology to address their labor problem?

The obvious answer is to use automation to fill the gaps, picking up the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks that are least desired by humans and better performed by robots. That opens up opportunities to perform higher value functions such as installing, operating and maintaining the robots, all of which are better, safer and higher paying than many traditional entry-level roles.

That idea is already catching on. From January to September 2021, North American factories and other users purchased 29,000 industrial robots worth nearly $1.5 billion, an increase of 37% from the same period in 2020.

Production automation is critical to helping factories meet the growing demand for American-made goods, but it’s not the only benefit of automation adoption.

The entrance of more advanced technology into our factories creates new opportunities for workers in high-value fields like data science, engineering, and computer programming. Unlike many other industries hiring these types of workers, manufacturers have the experience providing on-the-job vocational training, which broadens their talent pool while making them more attractive to workers seeking professional development opportunities.

Today we have barely scratched the surface of automation opportunity. Emerging technologies like deep-learning quality control, advances in robotic picking and grasping, predictive maintenance, and data-driven inventory management will reinvent factories into the modern technology marvels they once were.

As the value proposition of a manufacturing job improves, so does the promise of stability, upskilling and upward mobility.

Manufacturers are adopting technology because they have to in order to stay afloat and competitive, and to meet the growing demand for American-made goods with a shrinking supply of American workers. But by embracing automation, they are also helping workers get more advanced, higher-paying, technology-driven jobs that drive our whole economy forward.

Jeff Burnstein is the president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), North America’s largest automation trade association representing more than 1,050 organizations involved in robotics, artificial intelligence, machine vision & imaging, motion control & motors and related automation technologies.

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