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How to Turn Workers into Innovators

Aug. 27, 2018
In about a decade, one-third of current jobs could be automated. This doesn't have to be a doomsday prediction if your plant can figure out how this paradigm shift will enhance your current workers.

Every week, there’s a new article about AI and automation becoming more efficient at manual tasks. By 2030, the McKinsey Institute estimates 39 to 73 million jobs — or one-third of the United States workforce — will be automated.

With no added context, this statistic sounds scary. Why would Americans invent themselves out of work? Unemployment and automation are not synonymous. Using these advancements, in tandem with human ingenuity, can make better work environments, products, and services without an overhaul of known employment demographics.The human species has been here before, many, many times. It’s not a doomsday scenario for manufacturing industries of mass unemployment. What about how workers felt when the Industrial Revolution came to pass, or when IBM developed machines capable of completing thousands of permutations faster than any human? Each time we’ve advanced our technology, there were growing pains. Manufacturers trained workers on new machinery in the Industrial Revolution, and humans learned to use new technology to develop theorems and advancements that improved our production capabilities with stunning accuracy.

This generation's "growing pains" are happening right before our eyes, and the manufacturing industry must shift mindsets about how to redefine existing roles and optimize operations to create opportunities that enable new career trajectories. Graduates today do not know a time when they haven’t had a personal computer in their pocket, and they demand an innovative career that enables them to use technology to do their jobs faster and more efficiently. Sixty-seven percent of companies in the manufacturing industry worldwide now have ongoing smart factory initiatives, and those that don’t think ahead about this technological transformation will be left behind.

Sure, maybe this still isn’t a suitable, comfortable answer. Re-educating, re-training, and completely redefining a worker’s role can seem like something an organization won’t survive. This is an unproductive response to a market that demands efficiency and instantaneous delivery of highly customized products. Entire restaurant chains exist because of this unbiased shift completely overtaking operations to meet this type of consumer demand.

Manufacturing industries that have embraced machine learning and automation may have replaced workers, but reports show it also creates more jobs with higher wages. In addition to an engaged workforce, automation gives workers more time to spend on complex tasks and create innovative solutions. Take Marlin Steel in Baltimore, a company that makes intricate products for companies like General Motors and Boeing. Using automated robots, the company was able to hire more people with differing backgrounds to enhance computer-aided production. As a result of automation, wages increased, jobs increased, and the company moved to higher-quality products and higher-margin lines.

Creativity and ingenuity cannot be replaced by machinery, and this is where humans have the advantage. Take the sensors and cameras attached to machinery on the factory floor, for example. By interpreting the data from these IoT-enabled systems, managers can see when and where the machinery will fail before it stops working. Machines can collect this data, but it will be a long time before they are capable of the abstract thinking necessary to understand how a shot conveyor motor would affect overall production, and how to compensate by switching to another line.

Instead of resisting the inevitable shift into automation and machine learning, manufacturing industries have to get ahead of it by adopting changes now and preparing for continuous industry evolution to prevent a shocking, forcible "rip and replace" transition down the road. Adding simple solutions like those sensors and cameras mentioned before is far more cost-effective than replacing an entire fleet of machinery to achieve a connected factory floor. GE did something just like this in its Grove City Pennsylvania diesel engine factory. As one of the company's "brilliant factories," it's full of performance monitors and emerging tech. Everything has structure and a purpose, even the exercise of tightening bolts has been optimized for ergonomic and efficiency purposes. As a result, workers were able to prevent injury and perform their roles more effectively.

It's just one plant, but as more workers eschew the stereotypical fears of new technology competing against them and figure out how to make it work for them, a much more open, and innovative, workforce will follow.

John McDonald is the CEO of IoT intergrator ClearObject and chair of the Indiana Technology and Innovation Policy Committee.

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