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Human Leadership in an Automated World

A plastic manufacturer commits to automation--and to retraining and retaining all of its employees.

As many manufacturers know from experience, automation is becoming more and more prevalent. And while advances in automation are undoubtedly increasing efficiency, many are concerned that it is slowly eroding the job market.

This isn’t an unreasonable fear. A report published in 2017 estimated that one third of the U.S. workforce could be replaced by machines by 2030. A study from the University of Oxford painted an even bleaker picture: nearly half of current jobs are threatened by automation.

Understandably, many people in the industry read reports like these and fear for their jobs and futures. But the reality is more complicated—and far less catastrophic than these statistics suggest.

Here’s an example: I’m the VP of sales and development for a small plastics manufacturer that has been thermoforming plastic parts for nearly 70 years. A couple of years ago, we invested in a six-axis, fully robotic trimmer.

If you’re not familiar with thermoforming, plastic parts are trimmed after being removed from their molds in order to ensure there is no excess material. Up until we invested in robotic trimming, the process was a manual one performed by skilled employees using hand tools. We thought automated trimming would be faster, more accurate and more efficient—and we were right.

But the best part of bringing in the new equipment was that not one of our employees lost their job as a result.

Part of what has kept us in business for so long is our commitment to doing business the right way. For us, this means going out of our way to invest in employees, customers and parnters. We’ve realized that if you consistently prioritize any one of these over the others, your business ultimately suffers for it.

So in keeping with this philosophy, when we decided to transition to automation in a couple of our processes—in order to better provide for our customers—we also committed to keeping all of our employees on board. And we did.

We have always believed that regularly training employees is an important investment for the overall health of the business, and training was particularly critical during this transition period. On an individual level, employees who were moved from trimming to other areas of the business were trained on the line by their veteran colleagues. But thanks to state-funded training initiatives here in California, we were able to make broader training available to all of our 60 employees. This training, which was taught on-site by external experts, included communication skills, project management and English as a Second Language (ESL).  

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the skills that made employees good at one job—attention to detail, efficiency, precision, problem-solving—made them quick to adapt when introduced to new tasks and processes.

None of this happened overnight, and it took time to iron things out, but ultimately the transition went better than any of us expected. From a management perspective, it made us realize that we needed to empower our staff to work on multiple facets of the business. Every employee might not be suited to every task, but it’s important to give people the opportunity to determine what they are best at and enjoy most. Gone are the days when you hire someone for one specific skill—instead, you hire someone who may have one particular skill set but is willing and eager to adapt and learn others.

The whole experience was incredibly positive for our employees, too, and not simply because they kept their jobs. It demonstrated that automation presented an opportunity for personal career growth—not just growth for our company.

But we did grow. Thanks to our early adoption of automation, we ended up needing more employees and more shifts for our existing employees. Today, our workforce is about 20% larger than it was before we began integrating automation into our workflow.

This is a nice story for us, but it’s meaningless unless it’s widely applicable—and it is. A recent Brookings Institution report found that manufacturers in Germany use three times more robots than manufacturers here in the United States. But German manufacturers are also employing more people.

In fact, between 1999 and 2007, German manufacturers integrated more robots into their workforce than any other country. And while industry jobs did decline by 19% in Germany from 1999 to 2012, the decline in the U.S. (where there was less automation) was significantly higher, at 33%.

The lesson is clear: Investing in automation can actually drive success, which ultimately preserves jobs.

In the years to come, automation technology will continue to improve and will undoubtedly replace human labor in some respects. But for all of their speed and efficiency, robots depend on people to deploy, monitor and maintain them. And beyond that, manufacturers will always need creative analysis, complex communication and problem-solving in their businesses—and robots simply can’t provide those skills.

When it comes down to it, if we’re committed to doing business the right way—delivering for our customers while simultaneously investing in our partners and workers—we’ll find that a combination of automation and people aren’t just beneficial for success and growth—they’re critical.

Jason Middleton is vice president of sales and development at Ray Products.

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