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Kate Bachman Kate Bachman
Senior Editor

Automation and Humans: Replacement or Enhancement?

February 26, 2024

A dichotomy of messaging is being transmitted from the manufacturing industry concurrently.

One: Manufacturing employers are desperate and clamoring for new employees to perform important tasks. The other: Manufacturing leaders are buying robots and automation to replace employees as fast as they can.

Workforce Welcome

Per the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled today, and 2 million may be unfilled by the end of the decade. 

A couple of weeks ago I moderated a MetalForming Live session, “Recruit, Retain, Train.” Metal forming and fabricating leaders outlined their dire need for workers of various skill levels and explored strategies to attract the next-gen workforce. These company leaders showed an obvious appreciation for a hard-working workforce.

Replacement Theory

A few years ago I toured a midsized Midwest-U.S. metal fab shop. “My dream is to buy robots,” the plant’s owner told me, as we walked within earshot of a dozen of his employees. “They don’t take breaks or vacations, get sick, or ask for raises.” I cringed at the grimaced expressions of his employees who heard his words—and probably not for the first time. 

While I understand that U.S. manufacturers, challenged by global competition from low-wage countries, deploy automation to become more productive, leveraging automation to suppress their workforce is, well … crappy. Even more significant: That message suppresses the entry of the next generation of workers.

Would you want to enter an industry that plans to replace you with a robot? Would you encourage your children to do so? Being a human myself, I’d guess not.

Automation Increases Productivity

Automation undeniably is one of the largest, fastest-growing segments of capital-equipment purchases. For stampers and fabricators, that includes press transfer systems, coil loaders and unloaders, destackers, conveyors, auxiliary press equipment, and yes, robots and cobots. The United States’s steadily growing manufacturing output with a decreasing industrial population is net positive for manufacturers and consumers. More product out the door, quicker. More stuff to buy, cheaper. The growth of automation in industry certainly has been a main component of that increased productivity. 

Industry 5.0: Human-Centric Automation

The article, “Collaborative Pressroom Automation,” beginning on page 18 of this issue, proposes that collaborative automation changes the automation paradigm with a human-centric approach. Automated material handling and cobots can enhance worker safety, ease discomfort and improve pressroom productivity, the article contends. Industry 5.0 represents a new age that brings the human touch back into production, according to the European Commission. It is about people and automation working side by side.

“This approach provides a vision of industry that aims beyond efficiency and productivity as the sole goals and reinforces the role and the contribution of industry to society,” the European Commission says. “It places the well-being of the worker at the center of the production process and uses new technologies to provide prosperity beyond jobs and growth while respecting the production limits of the planet.”

Manufacturers Must Redirect the Messaging

Young people evaluating potential career paths—as well as mid-career workers seeking new ones—receive mixed messages about their prospects in manufacturing. While it’s true that some of that messaging comes from their schoolteachers and counselors, not all of the messaging comes from that direction.

Some manufacturers beckoning new workers into their fold recognize that their workers are their most important assets, while other manufacturers visibly salivate at the prospect of a lights-out, nonhuman environment. The kids are listening. They’re hearing it on their smartphones, on social media, from their friends—and from you. So are their parents, and so are their teachers.

If, in fact, metal forming and fabricating manufacturers truly want to attract the next-gen workforce, they must broadcast that message consistently, and clearly outline what those jobs are, which skills and education are needed, and what their growth path can be.

Robot designers? Automation MRO techs? Industrial electricians? Tool- and diemakers? Tool- and die maintenance engineers? Field-service engineers? Laser and automation operators or repair technicians? Press brake operators? Part designers? Operations managers? Procurement? Marketing and sales?

Will material handlers still be viable human jobs—or not? Press and other machine operators—or not? Will opportunities exist for creative people to engage in the creative work of making, building, crafting—or not?

If automation truly will function to enhance the work of humans, allow them to engage in the creative aspects of making products, and expedite productivity, that is the messaging that just may resonate with the next-gen workforce and help close the manufacturing job gap … as long as it is true.

Got thoughts? I’d love to hear from you. MF

Industry-Related Terms: Center, Die, Forming, LASER, Transfer
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms

Technologies: Additive Manufacturing, Pressroom Automation


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