The Robot Revolution
The manufacturing industry is changing rapidly as the automation revolution continues to accelerate. Robots perform repetitive tasks with greater speed and precision than their human counterparts. Sophisticated, predictive software can help plants run leaner operations, cutting inventory and waste while enhancing productivity. Robots don’t require lunch breaks, sick leave, vacation time, health insurance or 401k accounts, and with the continued development of artificial intelligence technology, they are able to perform increasingly complex tasks.
During 2018, more than 40,000 industrial robots were deployed across U.S. factories. This was a 22% increase over the previous year. It’s estimated that by the year 2022, 42% of total task hours will be performed by robots.1
Oxford Economics estimates that a single robot can displace an average of 1.6 workers and they predict that as many as 20 million jobs could be displaced by the year 2030.
While technological innovations typically create more jobs than they eliminate, the concern over automation is that the speed at which jobs are going away is happening faster than workers can be retrained and transitioned into higher-skilled and higher-paying positions.
Some economic models optimistically predict that although manufacturing jobs will see a 10% decline by 2022, this will be offset by an estimated 11% growth in emerging professions.
However, since this year’s coronavirus pandemic, many of these predictions are subject to change. Possibly drastically change. As manufacturers shut down or cut back operations due to health concerns, the move toward automation becomes more urgent. Businesses are seeing more clearly how replacing humans with robots can prevent the spread of disease without impacting productivity. Employees that remain through these transitions are likely to have less direct physical interaction and will therefore be safer on the job from this and future outbreaks.
Getting Ahead of the Curve
As the global marketplace becomes increasingly competitive, the race to automate intensifies. The 2019 World Robotics Report reveals that China is outpacing the rest of the world by adding more than 150,000 industrial robots into service each year.
This means the pressure is greater than ever on U.S. manufacturers to increase productivity while taking costs out of their operations. Unfortunately, while human employees are still a company’s greatest asset, they can also represent the highest costs. In order to adapt to this new world, manufacturers will need to embrace the promise of robotics to help them do more with less.
The challenge then, is how to best prepare for this transition. How do manufacturers retrain their current workers to prepare them to take on new roles, requiring more sophisticated skillsets?
Prepare Your Workforce for Change
For starters, it’s important to begin socializing this concept with your workforce immediately. Encourage your employees to be thinking ahead about new opportunities and what new skills they will need to be successful in the future. This kind of change can be difficult for many older workers so employers will want to be ready to provide guidance and practical assistance to help them maintain a positive outlook.
Second, be proactive. Start developing a list of specific skillsets that are going to be needed and task your managers to identify candidates on their teams who show the most potential. Then work with your HR department to create the training and development plans to upskill your teams.
Some companies are already taking action. A 2019 Deloitte study found that fully one fourth of all U.S. manufacturers have begun retraining their teams for robotics-related roles.
Amazon currently offers a 16-week certificate program that allows employees from their distribution centers to learn new skills while keeping their current jobs. This prepares them for higher-wage opportunities within the company.
Stanley Black & Decker created a framework to educate all of their employees on best practices over the next five years. The goal is to upskill 60,000 employees from managers to rank-and-file workers. Managers will learn how to better collaborate with their teams, while machine engineers and operators learn how to work alongside automated machines.
Some companies may choose to bring in new employees or outside contractors that already possess the needed skills. However, re-training or upskilling your existing work force may prove to be a more cost effective and efficient solution since they are already familiar with the business. Automation and AI technology can make everyone in your organization—from management to front line workers—become more productive and effective.
The robotics revolution is upon on us. It represents a potential boon that will help U.S. manufacturers greatly enhance productivity while lowering operational costs. But they must adapt quickly or risk losing their competitive edge. Automation can be a win-win situation for manufacturers and their workforces so it’s imperative to start preparing your teams for the transition now.