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Easing Worker Shortages and Elevating Jobs with Automation

Easing Worker Shortages and Elevating Jobs with Automation

March 10, 2022
Companies, such as 3M, are moving employees to more critical roles, as automation takes over certain job functions.

Asking whether robots will take over the jobs of humans is not quite the right question to ask, as finding workers to fill the large number of jobs currently open in manufacturing is almost impossible.

“The biggest problem, number one for us, is that there aren’t enough workers,” explains Global Robotics and Automation Leader of 3M’s Abrasive Systems Division Carl Doeksen. “And it’s not just large factories with low mix and high volume that are seeing this, it’s also medium-sized and small companies. Everyone is looking to automation to bridge the worker shortage.”

The underlying demographic reasons -- high rates of retirement combined with a small pool of workers -- will not change going forward, notes Jeff Burnstein, president of A3 (Association for Advancing Automation) “These factors will make it even more difficult to have a trained workforce that can help companies compete in the future," he says. "So, automation is playing a key role in filling the gaps by moving people from doing tasks that they don’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing into needed roles."

Employers are getting the message and in 2021, factories and other industrial users ordered 39,708 robots, which represents a 28% increase from 2020, according to data from A3. The previous annual record for robot orders was set in 2017 - when North American companies ordered 34,904 robots valued at $1.9 billion.

While robots have been in auto plants for a long time, last year's orders from non-automotive companies now represent 58% of the North American totals.

A breakdown of industry orders is as follows:

  •  Food and Consumer Goods:  up 29%  
  •  Semiconductors and Electronics/Photonics: up 2%  
  • Plastics and Rubber: up 4%  
  • Life Sciences/Pharma/Biomed: up 4%  
  • All Other Industries:  up 65% 

Careful Planning for Automation Implementation

Deciding to purchase robots is part of an overall business strategy. “Before we make an automation investment in a facility we determine if it’s automation-ready,” says Doeksen. “It’s not just about the numbers and the productivity potential. It has very much to do with the soul of the leadership. Is the investment going to be embraced by the team? This is hard to gauge and can’t be gleaned from a spreadsheet. You have to visit the facilities, talk to the employees and understand their issues.”

Doeksen said the facility has to be ready for change management and processes must be in place to ensure that it’s communicated properly. “If the first time employees hear about automation is when they see the robots coming into the plant on pallets, that’s not the right way to introduce it.” That doesn’t happen at 3M says Doeksen who points out that the company is very adept at change management.

“There is a process we use to engage the operators and manufacturing employees to get them ready for automation,” says Doeksen. “Certainly, it’s never about a 1-1 replacement of a worker.  We explain that if someone was doing a certain job and now the robot will do the job, the employee can learn how to operate them and troubleshoot them. This leads to a higher pay grade. It can be a real win-win situation.”

Reskilling the Workforce

The skills of the workforce have been changing over the past few years, notes Doeksen. “Our industry has tended to pay higher wages than the service sector. These are good jobs. We are seeing an increasing portion of our operators having either associate degrees or technical degrees. And more operators have four-year college degrees. Given this increase in skills, I think people like the opportunity to both operate and troubleshoot robots. I have personally witnessed this and it’s quite rewarding to see people develop in this way.”

Doeksen points out that one of the most successful ways to automate is paring an experienced operator with a new person. “If you want to automate a work cell or application and if you can get an experienced operator who knows everything about the incoming parts, the raw materials and processes, and pair them up with a hotshot engineer who knows Phython and C++ and knows the robot and put those together magic occurs.”

The upskilling of talent was underscored by a 2021 study from the World Economic Forum that predicted that automation would result in an increase of 58 million jobs. And two-thirds of the jobs transformed by automation will become higher-skilled. 

Burnstein sees this process happening with his membership. “In addition to creating new jobs having to do with programming, repairing and maintaining robots, we also must make sure that we are creating all types of jobs around automation including product development, data analytics and other jobs. And these types of jobs require different levels of training, not just a four-year degree.  

These differing degrees of education are going to be essential as U.S.  manufacturing will grow, says  Burnstein. “Given the recent supply chain problems, we will see an increase of more companies producing products in the U.S. and automation will play a key role. It’s a tool that companies need to take advantage of. Contrary to the belief that automation is taking jobs away, it’s automation that will keep companies competitive, and stay in business and protect jobs.”

Doeksen is very optimistic about the future of automation. “People’s attitude toward automation changed, in part due to the pandemic,” says Doeksen. This is a golden moment in history in the dawn of the  fourth industrial revolution and people that capitalize on it will get big dividends.”

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