Automation and digitization are already spreading to more factories and construction sites. Then the pandemic struck.
“It was a test by fire as we went through Covid,” said Mark Bulanda, executive chairman of automation solutions for Emerson, a maker of systems that automate factory processes.
“Not because of Covid, but because the exodus of people forced the adoption of the technology.”
The latest jobs report shows the manufacturing sector has grown to its fastest level since the start of the pandemic, jumping by 50,000 jobs. However, there are still about half a million fewer manufacturing workers employed than a year ago. The question is how many of these jobs will return – and how many have been permanently disrupted by digital processes.
Since the pandemic struck, food manufacturers have stepped up their automation, allowing facilities to maintain production while taking social distances. Factories have digitized their machine controls so that they can be controlled remotely by workers working at home or elsewhere. New sensors have been installed to report or predict failures, allowing teams of inspectors operating on a schedule to be reduced to a maintenance team as needed.
Now, manufacturers are clamoring for more automated machines to meet the growing demand for their products amid a global recovery and skills shortage.
Rockwell Automation, an industrial automation solutions provider, said growth was up 6 percent for the year and saw a sharp increase in orders in November and December.
Orders for automated machines rose 30% at Eastman Machine Company, a Buffalo, New York-based manufacturer that produces machines that cut specialty materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass, from increasingly in demand for cars, aerospace and wind turbines. The backlog for a new device runs through June, their longest company history.
“When you automate systems, you get greater precision,” said CEO Robert Stevenson. “The repeatability is increased. It is difficult to find people who can do this. “
During the pandemic, its own production lines were affected. State capacity restrictions forced it to temporarily lay off half of its staff. The workstations were remote and the assembly was divided into stages so that only one worker worked on one part at a time. He has since been able to rehire them all.
Now her biggest problems are reserving container ships to ship her product to customers amid a global shipping crash, and finding workers with technical skills and aptitude.
“People have to be trained,” he said. “It’s not a robot, you need operators.”
Still, it’s estimated that each automated device replaces six human workers, according to Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at MIT who studies the effects on work. While about three of the displaced workers will find other jobs, the rest are “withdrawing from the workforce,” he said, with the greatest labor market participation occurring among prime-age men. without a university degree.
Robots could replace up to 2 million more workers in manufacturing by 2025, Acemoglu found, contributing to wage inequality, slowing demand for labor and a further share higher GDP accruing to owners of capital than labor.
“Typically, automation tends to have a range of negative effects on workers, but it is then counterbalanced by other technological changes that create opportunities,” Acemoglu said.
But this time around, those displaced workers are moving into lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs, such as factory workers who are now security guards or warehouse workers, unless they are able to upgrading their education in a new technical job, or in engineering or management, he said, placing more of a burden on the worker to adapt.
“We are not training workers for the new types of jobs that may exist,” Acemoglu said. “We have failed to create the technologies necessary to generate enough opportunities for these workers.”
“The high initial cost of developing and implementing machinery in factories has been offset by the pandemic discouraging human labor.
“The high initial cost of developing and implementing machinery in factories has been offset by the pandemic discouraging human labor,” wrote Hyejin Youn, assistant professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, in an email.
“Once the level of development, implementation and production crosses the threshold to enter the … learning curve, the cost will go down, [making machines] cheaper than human workers, ”she wrote. Low-skilled workers are the most vulnerable to automation, she said.
But makers of automated products say these effects, far from being anti-worker, can free up workers to be redeployed elsewhere, better utilized, or potentially allow more workers to be hired.
“The most competitive industrial company combines cutting-edge technology with a workforce comfortable interacting with that technology and is valued for its unique human attributes such as decision-making skills,” said said Blake Moret, president and CEO of Rockwell Automation.
“If you combine a skilled, engaged workforce with cutting-edge technology, you create a more successful business that can do more, hire more people, and profitably engage new lines of business,” did he declare. “It’s a beneficial spiral.”
Boston Dynamics, known for its viral videos of slender-legged robot dogs and backflipping humanoid robots this year, unveiled Stretch, its first robot specifically designed for warehouse automation. It has built-in suction cup grippers on an arm that can grab boxes and move them on a pallet or conveyor belt. It can lift up to 50 pounds and move 800 boxes per hour and can be deployed quickly without requiring a lot of additional infrastructure.
For years, the warehousing industry knew its growth was going to translate into labor shortages, said Brian Nachtigall, Boston Dynamics’ business development director for warehouse automation.
“What happened last year was the pandemic,” he said. “A flashlight has really shone on this issue for a lot of people.”
Nachtigall said he viewed Stretch as a tool warehouse workers would use, rather than an outright replacement for them. Workers will still need to register the trucks, open their doors and allow one or more robots to unload the trucks. The company said a few customers will deploy Stretch in early 2022, but declined to say which ones.
“Some people talk about a warehouse ‘without lights’,” he said, describing a warehouse running entirely on automation that wouldn’t need humans – or lights.
“It’s probably quite far. There will be people who manage robots for a while in the future. “