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It’s no secret that automation is changing our world—mostly for the better. From large-scale automated machines that can handle complex manual tasks on our behalf to pocket-sized apps that can simplify our daily lives, automation has the power to reduce the time we spend on menial or trivial activities, and improve our overall productivity.
But with the current state and near future of automation, how is the manufacturing industry improving in real time?
First, manufacturers are startingto conduct more assessments, and conduct them at a more frequent pace. With the plethora of new technologies emerging at a near-constant rate, it’s important for manufacturing leaders to be in the know—and identify when their existing processes are falling behind the curve. A simple assessment of current levels of productivity, coupled with awareness of which tools are available, can quickly transform an obsolete process and make it more efficient for the modern world.
One of the most common concerns associated with automation in manufacturing is the threat it poses to manufacturing jobs, but how real is this threat, and are we accurately perceiving it?
Between 2000 and 2010, it’s estimated that the United States lost about 5.6 million manufacturing jobs, and 85percent of those losses are due to technological change. It’s possible for manufacturing companies to produce more with fewer people, so the number of available jobs has decreased.
That said, there’s also evidence that the manufacturing industry is facinga massive labor shortage. There simply aren’t enough skilled workers entering the field to replace the people about to reach retirement age. In fact, automation is sometimes credited with having the potential to resolve this problem; if no people are willing to take on the work, relatively in expensive machines can step in and do the job for us.
Things get even more complicated when you consider the nature of job replacement with the introduction of new automated technologies. Introducing a technology that replicates the work a human employee once handled doesn’t necessarily render the human’s job obsolete; it only replaces certain aspects of that job. For example, the human worker may still need to decide how the machine is operated, or may need to observe to determine the accuracy and quality of the work it’s doing.
Accordingly, more and more analysts are considering the effects of jobdisplacement rather than replacement.Instead of having their jobs taken away from them, manufacturing employees are required to learn more high-level skills that can’t yet be replaced by a machine, and are required to learn new technologies—and how they fit in the manufacturing world.
Improvements to Manufacturing
Overall, automation can assist in the following areas:
- Cost-efficiency.First and most obviously, introducing more automatic machines is typically more cost-efficient than hiring a human counterpart. Where it might cost $20 or more per hour to employ a skilled worker, it could cost $8 or less per hour to buy and consistently operate a machine to replace that job. This allows manufacturers to offer lower prices for their products, making them more competitive, while simultaneously improving profitability.
- Productivity. Machines don’t get tired.They may need downtime for occasional maintenance, but they aren’t limited to eight-hour shifts the way human beings are. They can also accomplish most repeatable tasks much faster than a comparable human. Accordingly,manufacturing firms with automated machines typically have much higher rates of productivity, ultimately producing more products per day and hour.
- Error reduction. Automation doesn’t make for a perfect manufacturing environment;there’s still a chance for error and reduced quality, especially if there’s no supervisory system in place. However, machines typically obey the commands programmed into them, so it’s much less likely that they’ll make errors on the regular.
- Worker safety. One oft-neglected benefit of using more automation is a dramaticincrease in worker safety. Because many manually intensive tasks are handled by machines, workers simply aren’t as exposed to as much danger. And because many automated systems have built-in safety features, the risk of damage from those machines is low.
The trajectory for technological growth is hard to predict.Over the past several years, we’ve seen breakthroughs that couldn’t have been predicted just two decades ago, so it’s borderline irresponsible to predict a single range of possibilities for the distant future. However, it’s almost certain that the manufacturing industry is in for even more changes in the years to come.