Between 2000 and 2010, the United States lost 6 million manufacturing jobs. Pundits and politicians offer a variety of explanations for how and why this happened. Depending on their political affiliation, talking heads might blame offshoring, illegal immigration, or bad trade deals. Among these conflicting ideas, there is one point that everyone seems to agree with: Workers are being replaced by increasingly effective machines.
Automation is certainly a factor in the decline of high-paying manufacturing jobs. But the claim that “robots are taking our jobs” fails to tell the whole story. In fact, American automation might be the key to reclaiming manufacturing as a national strength.
A manufacturing segment dominated by automation won’t lead to the worker’s paradise of previous decades. That ship has sailed. But a healthy manufacturing sector can create jobs throughout the entire supply chain, from warehouses to transportation, from logistics professionals to educators to manufacturing staff who work in concert with automated machinery.
E-Commerce, American Manufacturing, and the Rise of the Robots
In December 2015, business intelligence firm Boston Consulting Group surveyed a large segment of U.S. executives who lead companies with annual revenues of at least $1 billion. A healthy 31 percent of those executives said that they planned to invest in American manufacturing over the next five years. The goods produced would be sold where they were made: in the U.S.
These companies are profit-driven; they’re not building manufacturing hubs in the U.S. just to bring back jobs. In fact, the effect of e-commerce on the American economy is probably behind the trend toward local manufacturing.
In order to meet the strict shipping deadlines preferred by online shoppers, the supply chain has to shrink. Distribution centers are moving closer to consumers. Manufacturing facilities must be able to fill those distribution centers with coveted goods quickly, compounding the need for localization.
In order to produce high-quality products as cheaply and quickly as possible, companies will turn to automation. The BCG survey found that 75 percent of their respondents said they planned to increase automation and other cutting-edge manufacturing machinery over the next five years. The race to get goods to consumers depends on products being made quicker than ever, and the advancing robotics field offers a way forward.
How Automation Can Create Manufacturing Jobs in the New Economy
In addition to expanding the nation’s need for forklift operators, battery handling staff, order pickers, truckers, railroad workers, delivery drivers, and countless other logistics professionals, automated manufacturing will create factory jobs, too.
Collaborative automation requires traditional factory staff to work with machines (sometimes cleverly dubbed “cobots”) to perform complex manufacturing tasks. A robotic arm may lift heavy parts into place, while a worker installs hardware. Or, humans may actually train robots for new tasks, physically moving their arms through a manufacturing process and then letting the machine take over.
In addition to staffing the assembly line, fully automated factories will require a huge force of technicians, programmers, and maintenance workers to keep the machines running.
So, while automation is a trend that we can’t reverse, it may actually lead to more high-paying jobs than we think. In the new economy, automation might just be the force that brings manufacturing back to the United States.
Bally, Martin Nell. “U.S. manufacturing may depend on automation to survive and prosper.” Brookings. The Brookings Institute, 21 Dec. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Belfiore, Michael. “Automation Brings Manufacturing Back Home.” AutomationWorld. PMMI Media Group, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
“Collaborative Automation.” TheBOSSMagazine. BOSS News Network, Nov. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.