The automation ambiguity

As robotics, AI and big data collide, higher productivity masks questions about what it means for manufacturing

Posted on May 15, 2018 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

The robotic reckoning is upon us.

For some, that may conjure images of barren landscapes and human-hunting androids of the popular “Terminator” movie franchise. For others, such as Kurt Hahlbeck, the imagery is a lot less apocalyptic, but could prove just as worrisome for Northeast Wisconsin’s manufacturers.

Hahlbeck, a founding member of Advancing AI Wisconsin (AAIW), is anything but a Luddite. As someone who has worked in technology for most of his career, he sees great opportunities for the advancements in robotics, AI and big data to help manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin overcome labor challenges and continue their dominant role in the sector.

It’s what he doesn’t see, or perhaps more accurately what he doesn’t hear — the lack of a comprehensive discussion — that concerns him.

Automation by accident will not turn out well, he says.

“This is really something that we should be digging into and be prepared for,” Hahlbeck says. “We can’t just do nothing. If we do nothing, we will lose.”

It’s not that a definitive plan needs to be written today, he says. After all, there is time to prepare as the latest wave of AI drives automation. But the conversations need to start, and manufacturers need to understand just what it can do for them, how much it could cost them and what that might mean to the future of the sector’s workforce.

To spark that conversation, Hahlbeck teamed with other consultants in the leadership and technology spaces to make presentations on the impact of this next wave of automation on various industries. The presentation caught the attention of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, and its board members saw the presentation in February.

A presentation to the full NEWMA membership is planned for the organization’s annual meeting, scheduled for 8 to 10 a.m., June 14, at the Holiday Inn in Manitowoc.

Those attending should expect a thought-provoking discussion.

“I think everyone in the industry has a lot they should be thinking about,” says John Dennis, chairman of NEWMA’s board and CEO of Gardan Industries. “Most of our membership consists of small- and medium-sized businesses. They don’t have the resources of big companies. They need to be planning for what this could mean.”

Automation is not a new trend in manufacturing. Indeed, it has been changing the workplace for decades as processes and robotics have liberated workers from repetitive tasks and allowed manufacturers to increase productivity.

But it seems we are now approaching a critical mass of change that bears some similarities to the rapid industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, changes marked by the birth of new industries and wholesale changes in how work was done. Major social and labor strife also were hallmarks of that transition, though no one is predicting such an upheaval this time around.

What’s pushing us toward that critical mass this time around is the combination of automation, robotics, big data and AI. As machine learning advances and automated processes become more adaptable, many of the lower-skill jobs in the manufacturing ecosystem can be replaced.

Several recent studies have cited major workforce disruption within the next 20 years as AI and other technologies mature in the workforce. Different studies put that disruption at different rates.

A 2013 Oxford study predicted 47 percent of current jobs in the U.S. economy will be replaced by automation, while a study by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that just 9 percent of jobs will be affected.

A study published by McKinsey & Co. in 2017 predicted 400 to 800 million jobs worldwide
will be lost to automation by 2030.

Just last month, the trade journal Science Robotics published a study in which robots assembled an IKEA chair in about 20 minutes without human intervention. The breakthrough is considered significant because it involved complex operations requiring fine-motor movements, hand-eye coordination and proper calibration of the amount of force needed to put something together — all considered human traits.

This brings robots closer to fully autonomous functions that could be applied to multiple industries.

That represents both opportunities and significant challenges for manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin.


The opportunity is that AI and automation can help companies overcome the talent shortages they have faced during the past several years. With unemployment in the state hovering around 3 percent, hundreds of positions are going unfilled.

“We just can’t find the talent,” Dennis says.

The challenges are the costs — companies not only need to acquire the technology, but they need to educate employees on how to work with the new technologies.

It sounds daunting at first blush, but it doesn’t have to be.

For the past several years, automation, robotics and AI have played a greater role on the production floor at Georgia-Pacific Corp’s Broad Street Mill in Green Bay. From computer-controlled lines to self-driving forklifts, innovative technologies permeate the paper company’s production processes. For the most part, it has been a plus for everyone, says Aaron Berg, manager of engineering at GP.

“It’s going to continue to replace a lot of the lower-value work that people would have to do, things like stacking boxes on pallets,” Berg says. “It frees them up for higher-level work that has more value and adds to the productivity.”

It does mean employees will need to skill up, perhaps on a continual basis.

“There is no doubt it is going to take a different skill set,” says Michael Kawleski, public affairs manager for GP. “But we have been working on that with our workforce. We don’t have machine operators anymore, we have technicians. Their job is to manage the line, keep it running and troubleshoot problems. It’s higher-level work.”

That need for new and evolving skills is an important part of the discussion Hahlbeck and others at AAIW wish to spark with manufacturers and other employers in the state. It won’t be long before tasks that have been part of the everyday workload and performed by well-paid professionals are replaced by an algorithm-driven machine or computer.

“There will be a skills gap,” says Mitch Weckop, CEO of Skyline Technologies. “But we can also use that same technology to help bridge the gap.”

Weckop, who is also part of AAIW, relates a story of a company that has new technicians in the field using augmented reality technology so they can connect with an experienced technician in a central location to solve problems with a piece of equipment, with both looking at the same issue. That same model could be used in a manufacturing facility.

“We need to rethink how we work, and it can be hard to see,” Weckop says. “But it can help us bridge those talent gaps and gives us some things to think about when it comes to reskilling the workforce. The opportunity is in innovation.”



It also will take a constant learning approach from employees. Workers must be open to learning new skills on a consistent basis as innovation and technology change the nature of the job regularly during a career.

That’s an important part of how GP is redefining its workforce needs, Berg says. He says the new skill set will demand teamwork, problem-solving and analytical skills and adaptability.

“What they really need to be able to do is learn something, unlearn it when it is outdated and learn something new to replace it,” Berg says. “Lifelong learning will be key.”

What Hahlbeck sees is a reimagining of the value chain and accepting that more things will be digitized and the approach to production and work will change. That means the talent pipeline will be different.

But, he says, it doesn’t have to be — and really shouldn’t be — reactive.   

“We do have time. We need to create awareness,” Hahlbeck says. “We need to be aware something is happening here and be prepared to dig in.” Φ