The automation application

Posted on Jan 16, 2017 :: Editors Note
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

SOMETIMES, THE CONNECTIONS THAT LEAD TO a good story have the strangest of origins.

That was certainly the case regarding this month’s issue of IOM. The question that resulted had its genesis moment during an international layover at a Spanish airport, when your humble editor stumbled off a long, and not so comfortable, Iberian Air flight from Chicago to Madrid and began searching for a little pick-me-up.

Those of you who saw me at Manufacturing First will probably guess what took me to Spain — yes, I have a soccer addiction — so work was the furthest thing from my mind. A latte was the first order of business, as soon as I cleared customs. What I stumbled across in that search was an interesting experience — my first brush with an automated McDonald’s.

As I walked in, the only thing greeting me was a digital kiosk where I ordered and paid. By the time I walked up to the next counter, my hot and deliciously caffeinated beverage was already waiting for me. Now, I know the restaurant wasn’t completely automated — I did see one employee — but I never had contact with that person, and I don’t recall the employee having much interaction with my coffee, either.

Now, on its own, that experience was nothing more than an amusing travel anecdote until a couple of other ideas merged with it, sparking a creative thought. Additional fuel was provided by December’s New North Summit, which was dominated by discussions of a talent crunch and potential solutions.

The clarifying nugget came from my LinkedIn feed, which just a few days after the summit delivered an article from The Economist on robotics in the workplace with the premise that automation, not off-shoring, was the biggest threat to manufacturing jobs.

Clear as mud, right?

As I read the article, I suddenly recalled the airport McDonald’s and flipped the question: Instead of a threat to jobs, could automation help manufacturers in our area solve the labor problems that were discussed at the New North Summit? Is it time for a greater emphasis on automation here?

As you read Nikki Kallio’s cover story based on that initial question, you will learn the answer is both yes… and no. Yes, automation can certainly help some of our manufacturers be more productive with a smaller workforce. No, because robotics and automation also create the need for new employees with different skill sets. The story starts on page 8 and includes some keen observations from industry leaders.

While automation may not be a panacea for the region’s labor challenges, area manufacturers are investing in modernization to take care of it. The recent Manufacturing Vitality Index prepared for the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance found that 68 percent of manufacturers are planning to modernize in 2017. (Story begins on page 20.)

This month, we also double-bill recognizing those who are setting the standard for making sure we do have the workforce area manufacturers need. On page 17, Jessica Thiel features winners of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance/K-12 partnership awards, while in the center of the magazine you will find our Manufacturing All Stars special section.

The new year has just begun, and already we have a lot to talk about. Hoping your 2017 is off to a fast and productive start.