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Can robots and automation solve a regional labor shortage without displacing the current workforce?

Posted on Jan 16, 2017 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

An article in The Economist discussed the growing vulnerability of jobs to automation, including “middle-skill” jobs such as those in manufacturing. It cited a 2013 Oxford University study that said 47 percent of workers were at high risk of their jobs becoming automated. In the New North, 80 percent of manufacturers anticipate having trouble finding skilled workers, according to the 2017 Manufacturing Vitality Study — a staggering increase from 29 percent in 2011. Could more robotics and automation be one answer to the labor shortage? Or does an increase in automation create a wider gap in the number of skilled workers needed to operate and maintain the equipment?

IOM Contributing Writer Nikki Kallio asked New North manufacturing leaders and educators to weigh in on the subject.

We also asked what they believed the best approach would be in the coming decade to balance the increased use of automation without disrupting opportunities for workers. Here’s what they had to say:

Andy Bushmaker, senior human resources manager, KI

With the labor shortage, I do not see workers as having their jobs at risk to automation. Over the years, KI has added significant automation to our facility, and nobody has lost a job due to automation. Employees have needed more training, but automation has not replaced employees. That said, increasing automation could certainly help with the current labor shortage in some instances. Automated systems are safer, more efficient, more consistent and more effective overall. Embracing automation helps keep us competitive.

Knowing this, automation does and has created a wider gap of needed skilled employees. We are seeing more need for individuals with education in automation or electromechanical technology — and right now there simply are not enough students coming out of those programs to meet the needs of industry.

Several things can be done to help ensure that the workforce is ready for growing automation. Companies can embrace:

• Apprenticeship programs and work with technical colleges to help train the existing workforce.

• Internship programs such as the Career Academy program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

• Organizations like the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance (NEWMA) whose goal is to increase the manufacturing talent pipeline.

• Youth apprenticeships. Students are the future workforce.

• Partnerships with schools. We have built a great partnership with Denmark High School that has resulted in an annual project-based program. The students love it because they know that what they are designing and building will be used in production at KI. Bay Link Manufacturing within the Green Bay School System is another great example.

Greg Kleinheinzchair of sustainable technology and professor of environmental engineeering technology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

The changes in technology and processes certainly change the type, quantity and skills required of today’s workforce. However, with these changes come opportunities for those workers positioned in the right way to take advantage of these changes. We must be forward thinking in how we approach workforce education and employee training, such as through formal education, lifelong learning and on-the-job experience.

The fear and transitions from one type of manufacturing to another is nothing new and has been a concern for workers since the Industrial Revolution. At each major step in technological advancement over the past 200-plus years, changes had to be overcome by manufacturers and workers. Having said that, workers today are producing more than 47 percent more than workers 20 years ago, according to the Brookings Institution. This resurgence in manufacturing output is driven by both technology and skilled workers.

Again, this technology does come at some price in terms of overall worker growth in some fields, but a skilled workforce in STEM is still needed no matter the level or type of technology. In fact, as technology expands, it requires skilled workers to develop, design, maintain and operate these new technologies.

Educational institutions must look ahead of the curve and understand the likely, and even possible, changes in manufacturing practices, job markets, worker need, and make sure that we prepare our students for “careers” and not just a “job.” That is, most employees that start in the workforce today will end up doing  things that they have not even considered or that don’t even exist today. Thus, we need to instill more than just technical competence into these professionals so they have the critical thinking, problem solving, entrepreneurial and technical foundational knowledge that allows them to adapt and be productive in new areas of manufacturing. In short, it is not business as usual in education.

Jerry Murphyexecutive director, New North, Inc.

Manufacturers have been automating for decades, so the fact that automation continues is not particularly new. That automation is being accelerated as a function of labor shortages is probably a strategic move, but as the article suggests, automation creates a unique demand for more sophisticated skills, education and training. 

Manufacturers have recognized the need to band together to create a strong pipeline for talent and the need to be aligned with education (K-12 through post-graduate levels) to assure an accurate perception of career paths in manufacturing. They are currently recruiting talent in a very competitive labor market and they’re investing in retraining and evolving the skills of their current workforce.

The solutions to labor demand are complex and strategic, requiring a focus on several strategic pathways to meet future workforce requirements. Many of these strategies are departures from traditional practices. Success depends on collaborative and innovative ways to win the competition for labor, to retain and develop talent from within a company, to strengthen the pipeline of next-generation workers and to develop and deploy effective technology and automation.

Mike Kawleskipublic affairs manager, Georgia-Pacific

Of the companies participating in the latest Manufacturing Vitality Index Study by NEWMA, 68 percent say they plan some form of modernization during 2017. Although modernization comprises more than automation, many firms continue to substitute technology for labor.

However, how much to automate is still a business decision, and even though a company can automate a process, it may not be cost effective to do so. For example, a manufacturer could purchase a laser-guided vehicle (LGV) to carry materials and load trucks, but it’s a sizable investment. It may still be more economical to employ lift truck drivers and — if these tasks are varied or complex — more effective.

Manufacturers will need employees with increased technical skill sets to run this automated equipment, but this shift has already been happening for years. On the manufacturing floor, employees are now technicians, not just operators. They already maintain, troubleshoot, program, lubricate and even design equipment.

Since people are a company’s most important asset, it’s crucial to let your workforce know as much as possible, as soon as possible, whenever automation will affect their roles. This way, employees can make decisions about their careers on their terms. Though some employees may leave the company, especially if they’re already near retirement, many others will choose to build additional skills that will increase their technical expertise. Like many other companies, Georgia-Pacific offers tuition reimbursement benefits to help pay for this training and education.

Scott Kettlerpresident, EMT International

First off, I think 47 percent is very high, and the statement leads to the premise that automation displaces workers, which I don’t support. I am a firm believer that technology creates the need for labor vs. displacing it. With automation, there is still the need to program, maintain, upgrade and improve. While data analytics help support the minimization of those tasks, it can’t eliminate them. I do think automation allows repetitive work to be done more safely and consistently — read “faster and/or cheaper” — but more importantly, it allows those same workers to do other value-added work that isn’t as repetitive or is more cognitive in nature. This might require up-skilling talent.

Automation will create other labor problems, as it has in the past, as with CNC machinists, computer programming, aeronautical engineering, unless we stay on top of it, embrace it and proactively prepare for it. This needs to come from both K-16 educational institutions and from industry to provide its workers opportunities to advance their skills.

Automation will help companies that have work processes that can affordably be automated to help their labor shortage. I have found that the key to automation is cost and getting an acceptable ROI from it. The manufacturing world is technically advancing at a fast pace, so one needs to have a good grasp of their next three to five years to capture the value of automation.

The question of using more automation and robotic solutions in manufacturing is too often presented as an “either/or” argument. Most robotic solutions increase the productivity of their human counterparts in other ways, so I view them as complementary.

The rate of adoption of industrial robotics has been nearly exponential globally during the past two decades, but has generally only been applied in large, standardized production environments such as the automotive industry. We know that automation is now being used in more specialized and smaller-scale applications, many of which are in use in the New North.

However, there are still some limits to what even the most advanced industrial robot can do either due to cost, technology, or the precision involved. As this technology improves and becomes more economical, it may solve some of the region’s skill shortages, but there will still be a key role for labor.

Skill sets have improved every time a new technology has been introduced in an industrial process. This is especially true with disruptive technologies such as robotic or automation solutions, lengthening the learning curve. The biggest challenge is always faced by the education and training communities to develop the training programs to anticipate these changes. We are already seeing the impact of these changes in the ways that robotics and pre-engineering skills are incorporated at the K-12 level through programs such as Project Lead the Way. We have recognized that students need to be given a head start in understanding technology that may not yet be installed on a plant floor.

The balance will come when manufacturers think about how they can use automation technologies to do more, rather than to do what they are already doing. The key to achieving this balance is to use one innovation to breed several other innovations. This will provide significant new opportunities for workers and keep the New North ahead of the global manufacturing curve.