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On Humans, Robots and the Future of Work

Automation takes the pain and repetitive strain out of manufacturing. But as the technologies proliferate, we still have one challenge left: to finally tap into the full potential of the human workforce.

In our everyday coverage here at IndustryWeek, we often encounter themes and executive stressors that never seem to fade. We have, for example, the issue of skilled labor deficits, which has persisted in the industry for decades. Or we have the worry about job-stealing robots and machines, which goes back centuries. And behind it all, we have the steady drive of operational and technological improvements that pushes the industry ever forward… while also stirring the other issues ever back to the fore.

In today’s manufacturing environment, though, these “evergreen” concerns are especially sharp.

On one side, as U.S. unemployment sinks to progressively lower rates and operations become progressively more high-tech, the challenge to find enough skilled workers to take on the new opportunities this economy presents is enormous. In many cases, it’s simply impossible.

On the other side, a new breed of automation solutions—from cobots and low-code traditional bots to machine learning and AI (and everything in between) seem to offer a range of capabilities so broad that many worry they will not only help fill all of our unfillable positions but also eat into existing high-wage jobs.

These are significant issues and concerns that permeate the entire manufacturing industry.

So, rather than just touching on the subjects in our usual content mix, we decided to attempt to tackle it all—to tell a complete story of what expanded automation can mean to the manufacturing workforce and their safety, to operations and efficiency, and how to develop a strategy for it all that really works.

Over the last few weeks, we have begun publishing an entire series of stories hitting these topics to tell the story in its full scope:

Through them, we encounter a lot of recurring themes, but the one that really connects it all hardly deals with robots at all. It’s about people.

And that is exactly where the focus needs to be.

Oh, the Humanity

Until fairly recently, robots have served one primary purpose: to overcome the physiological limitations of human beings. They allow us to lift the unliftable and move the unmovable at speeds beyond natural comprehension.

In the process, they have allowed us to build bigger, better products, to grow and develop our society and meet its expanding needs. They gave our industries superhuman strength, leaving us to handle the human-powered work.

But now, automation has changed. The new robot generation has a different purpose: to overcome both the physiological and psychological limitations of human beings.

With traditional robots doing the heavy lifting, human workers are often left with the remaining repetitive tasks—running small, detailed operations, piece after piece, every shift, every day, forever without end. However—as carpel tunnel cases and end-of-shift quality metrics can attest—this work runs counter to how both our bodies and our minds work.

Simply put, it’s not what humans are for.

And now, robots are beginning to save us from this as well. But in the process, we need to ask ourselves a very serious question: If humans aren’t pallet trucks or pick-and-place machines, then what is our role in manufacturing?

This, I believe is the fundamental question of our times, and one every manufacturer and every executive needs to be asking.

The human asset goes far beyond labor. Every worker on the floor is filled with ideas, insights, perspectives and abstract creative genius that no machine and no software can duplicate. The challenge now is to redefine our strategies to tap into that, to harness the true human potential.

But, if any of this is going to work, that process must occur in concert with automation. If not, we risk gaining productivity at the cost of innovation—a miscalculation no business can afford to make.

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