It’s no secret that advances in automation and a digital revolution have altered the manufacturing landscape during the last three decades, in both a literal and figurative sense. Shop floors and distribution centers certainly don’t look the way they used to; compared to a similar scene in 1985, factory floors involve fewer workers, with different skill sets, occupying a cleaner, safer, and better controlled environment with lower levels of inefficiency, waste, and lost productivity.
And the figurative landscape is also unrecognizable in some ways; the outlook for manufacturing is riddled with question marks, cautious optimism, and the belief that technology will continue to change how production takes place. Policy makers are monitoring the impact of automation on job creation, and software developers are on the lookout for new innovations in machining, quality control, materials handling, and product tracking.
Manufacturing and Jobs
The common belief held by many both inside and outside of the manufacturing sector appeared to bear out during most of the 90’s and early 2000’s: More automation increases productivity and reduces error, but automation also threatens jobs. At this point, some industry observers are beginning to question this common sense assumption.
K.P. Reddy is the CEO of a SoftWear Automation, a software platform that manages the stitching process via a digitized system of coordinated cameras and sewing machinery. According to Reddy, the positions made possible by his company’s product replace manual jobs without making human requirements obsolete. “These are technician-level jobs,” says Reddy. “They’re better jobs.”
And some of these assertions seem to reflect the developing relationship between manufacturer requirements and the labor market. Manufacturing jobs have evolved, but not disappeared. Some even suggest that the change signals a renaissance, rather than an end, to manufacturing in the US, since the evolution of these positions may potentially return jobs to the US from overseas.
Intellectual Property and Security
Some manufacturing experts also suggest that the advancement of anti-counterfeiting technology and the digital stamping of individual products and shipments can support the future of the industry. Tighter supply chains and better control of intellectual property can protect companies from competitors and counterfeiters and bolster bottom lines.
Automation—from self-driven forklifts to robotic assembly lines– can speed production, protect workers from injury, and open a landscape of new positions that were impossible to imagine a generation ago. If manufacturing managers can close skills gaps and provide necessary employee training, the digital revolution may save rather than threaten the future of domestic manufacturing.