Factory Automation: Better Jobs, Not Less Jobs

man programming bending machine

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A quick search of ‘lob losses from automation’ will result in a tangled mess of predictions, estimations and statistics about the number of the jobs that have been lost or will be lost in the face of factory automation. Some of the alarming claims you might find suggest “800 million roles could be phased out”, and “47% of American jobs are at risk”.

What these automation alarmists often fail to include in their cries of “machines take jobs” is how technological innovation leads to occupational development. When ATM’s were introduced throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, bank teller positions didn’t start disappearing, in fact, they increased. ATM’s allowed bank tellers to focus on specialised, more complex services and relationship banking, while the machines handled the tedious repetition of simple transactions. The bank teller’s job became more valuable, and the cost savings allowed the banks to open more branches, creating more teller jobs and reaching wider markets.

prototyping a plastic model

When we discuss factory automation the focus needs to shift away from the threatening rhetoric of ‘robots taking our jobs’ to focus on the opportunities arising for higher-skilled roles from automation. Factory automation takes the worker off the monotonous and repetitive production line, into the world of the ‘new-collar worker’ who works collaboratively with complex technology, machines and robotics in more efficient and safer factories.

The ‘new-collar worker’ is a conceptual term you’ll see exercised by the World Economic Forum. Their Industry 4.0 report suggests the number of jobs lost globally to automation could be as little as 9%. Instead, new or transformed manufacturing roles arise requiring highly-skilled workers often with a non-traditional education and specified expertise with these new types of technology. New inventions create new markets and jobs to go with them.

Successful and responsible leaders of manufacturing facilities will appreciate the value of the new-collar worker throughout the implementation of factory automation. Preparing workers for the changes ahead with the opportunity to develop new skills and knowledge of the modern processes is paramount. Perhaps the best candidate to be trained to program a factory’s new Computer Numerical Control Turning Centre is the individual who had been manually operating a lathe before the new machine was purchased.

It will take responsible leaders to balance the benefits of automation with the need to up skill people. The aim must be for workers to manage robots rather than be replaced by them – and use their human creativity to ensure continued innovation. It is with this realisation that leaders will steadily build a workforce of highly skilled and knowledgeable employees in positions they are proud of. The aforementioned bank managers were able to use the time and money freed up by ATM’s to train their tellers to sell insurance and financial services, explain governing regulations to clients and establish new relationships. The same goes for the factory manager – if investments are made in the machines, so too do investments need to be made in the people. Automation must involve collaboration between people and machines to accomplish the value leaders seek.  Leadership in factory automation is underpinned by the creation of better jobs, not less jobs.

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