Automation helps, not hurts, manufacturing jobs

Wednesday November 28, 2018
Written by Jason Middleton
November 28, 2018 – Do the far-reaching benefits of automation in manufacturing outweigh the potential cost of eliminating human jobs?

This is a widely debated question in the manufacturing industry – with good reason. The technological advances in automation over the past two decades have dramatically changed the landscape of many industries, and manufacturing in particular.

When we examine this question carefully, it’s clear that there’s an assumption behind it: Automation renders human labour costly and inefficient, and will continue to do so. This isn’t entirely unfounded. By their very nature, robots are designed to be faster, more efficient and less costly. These qualities are bound to make automation attractive to manufacturers, whose bottom line relies heavily on these metrics.

Indeed, many manufacturers have already begun to adopt automation across their processes. A 2017 Brookfield Institute report found that in the coming years, approximately 62 per cent of work activities in Canada’s manufacturing industry could be automated. And while statistics like this one sound grim, they aren’t the whole story because they don’t take into account the evolution of people’s jobs, roles and skills. The reality of automation and jobs in the manufacturing industry is much more nuanced than the conventional wisdom that robots will make people’s jobs obsolete.

Here’s a real-life example. I work for a plastic manufacturer that has produced thermoformed parts for a wide range of clients for nearly 70 years. A few years back, we purchased our first six-axis, fully robotic trimmer.

Prior to the robotic trimmer, the trimming process was a manual one. When plastic parts were removed from their moulds, skilled workers used hand tools to trim them of any excess plastic. By investing in an automated trimming process, we doubled down on the notion that robotic technology would increase our speed, accuracy and efficiency. And it wasn’t long before we realized we were right.

Celebrating this investment was easy – because not one of our employees lost their job to a robot.

When we made the decision to move toward automation in many of our processes, we also committed to doing everything we could to keep our employees whose tasks were being replaced. In the end, some of our employees were able to seamlessly transition to similar tasks with minimal training, while others experienced a more significant shift in their day-to-day. But no one lost a job.

Ultimately, we found that the core skills that made these workers great at trimming – accuracy, efficiency, precision and problem-solving – made them valuable employees in a wide range of tasks. The net results of this transition were even better than we expected. Not only did we keep our workforce intact, but we also showed our employees that automation presented an opportunity for growth across the company – and we significantly grew our business.

In fact, the growth driven by our early adoption of automation required more employees; our workforce is about 20 per cent larger today than it was before we began implementing robotic technology.

This anecdotal experience is not an anomaly. A recent Brookings Institution report found that German manufacturers are using three times more robots than manufacturers in the United States. But these same manufacturers are also employing more people than their American counterparts. In fact, German manufacturers integrated more robots into their workforce than any other country between 1999 and 2007. And while manufacturing jobs did decline by 19 per cent from 1999 to 2012, manufacturing jobs in the United States declined by 33 per cent – and they had implemented far less automation in the years prior.

The reality is that in certain facets of manufacturing, technology will ultimately replace human labour. Robots are faster, more efficient and less expensive – but they also require skilled people to deploy and manage them. And, even more importantly, robots are not capable of creative analysis, complex communication or problem-solving – all skills that are just as critical as speed and efficiency.

Rather than consider automation and jobs as opposing forces, it’s important that we understand the true value of both automation and our workforce. We can invest in training that continues to make our employees valuable while simultaneously investing in automation that drives growth and efficiency.

Jason Middleton is vice-president of sales at Ray Products, a custom plastics manufacturer. 

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